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|


My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible and I accept responsibility for nothing else.


Beckett's humour is ever present in his work, but his despair, and perhaps his writing in general, is often easier to listen to than to comprehend. Beckett frequently expressed his concern with the movement behind words, irrespective of their meaning and truth value. He spoke his written dialogue out loud, paying attention to the aspirations and pauses which the spoken words provoked, and the tempo at which they were best delivered. He also revealed his fascination with the shape and balance of sentences. In the overall structure of his plays he generally demonstrates the same principles of organisation, based on rhythm, and balance as he displays in the smaller units. Beckett claimed that he began to write Waiting for Godot to get away from the prose he was writing at the time and 'from the wildness and rulelessness' of the novels. His insistence on upholding the dramatic unity of time and space further underlines his fondness for a controlled structure.

This is perhaps partly why music plays an important part in Beckett's writing, not only through the odd mention of specific works, but as an influence on the structure of his plays and the mode of expression which his characters, movements and sound effects adopt. Beckett had a wide knowledge of music and was himself a musician. He began playing the piano as a child, and later spent much of his time listening to music and attending concerts. His taste in music was primarily Romantic, his favourite composers being Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert.

Although many critics mention the fact that Beckett's plays have a musical shape, there does not seem to be a critical study specifically aimed at exploring this aspect of his writing in connection with his radio plays. Furthermore, there is in general comparatively little in-depth criticism directed purely at his radio plays. In this thesis, therefore, I hope to show that Beckett found a particularly apt refuge for his protagonists in radio, and that it is a medium through which he was able to express his own particular concerns in a language which more closely resembles the imageless language of music. In connection with this, I will later look at the structure of his radio plays, and further try to show that he composed them with the merits of certain specific kinds of music, or musical composition, in mind.

My first chapter, however, will concentrate on some aspects of the organisation of the BBC, and of its production technology, which have helped shape radio drama. I will also give a brief outline of some of the more influential works written specifically for this medium, commenting on Beckett's place in these developments. This survey, though necessarily brief, serves a double function. In the first place, it may help establish at least some sense of the general context within which Beckett's work as a radio dramatist should be seen. In the second place, it should help identify, by contrast, the particular nature of Beckett's own contribution to the genre. For that reason, I have thought it worth bringing the survey more or less down to the present day, including reference to some recent works.

In the subsequent chapters, I will concentrate on the structure of Beckett's radio plays in order to show how his concerns are presented in a mode of drama which takes on the aesthetic shapes and qualities of music. I will deal primarily with the four longer plays; All That Fall (1956), Embers (1959), Words and Music (1961) and Cascando (1962). Beckett's two other radio plays, Rough for Radio I (1961) and Rough for Radio II (early 1960's) will only be mentioned briefly as they are comparatively short sketches. Furthermore, I will seek to show that, as a result of his distrust of theatricality, Beckett's radio drama consciously identifies itself as radio drama. Thus in Beckett's radio drama, the expressive elements of language try to cancel themselves out and break the illusion of the theatrical experience. I hope that this will help to illustrate that the purely sound-based nature of radio made it possible for Beckett to provide an environment for his characters where their silence is more than just the lack of words but also a demonstration of complete anonymity.

In his study of Beckett, The Long Sonata of the Dead, Michael Robinson writes that Cascando offers a 'descent, behind appearances.' If we look at Beckett's writings in chronological order, we can see that he gradually seems to narrow the frame, excluding social settings, zooming in on the protagonist and eventually descending into the subject's mind. On radio, Beckett is naturally able to exclude the visual dimension altogether and create characters with voices alone. Furthermore, since Beckett's language is not a sophisticated parole by which his characters can convey meaning, but rather a simple language which reveals its own limits, Beckettīs protagonists can only discover and comprehend by means of perception and intuition. They state what they see, remaining in ignorance, rather than imposing meaning by stating what they think they should see.

Many well known dramatists have written for radio. In the hovedemne course from which I derive the subject of this thesis, Tragedy to Black Comedy - the Evolution of a Genre, I found that all four of the modern playwrights studied had also written specifically for radio, and that in the case of Harold Pinter and John Arden, a great amount of their work had in fact originated in the blind medium. One of Joe Orton's most famous plays, The Ruffian on the Stair, had similar origins. The fourth writer was Beckett, who wrote six original radio plays.

Beckett has, of course, written plays for television and film as well as radio, and is in fact most famous for his stage plays and prose. A point of interest is that in each of these media, the "Beckett being" seems to be aware of his role in the work and of the particular mode of transmission by which he is perceived. Beckett's plays for radio seem to resonate a subliminal as well as a direct comment on their own radiogenicity, drawing our attention to the nuances of aural sense impressions. The plays invite the listener to distinguish between, yet fuse together, the levels of sound which radio can offer simultaneously.

Beckett's BBC producer, Donald McWhinnie, has stressed the fact that when listening, 'every individual must translate the sound pattern he hears into his own mental language,' whether that be visual images or a 'mental sequence of ideal, tones and emotion.' Like the short story or traditional oral narrative, radio drama requires an economising of words and action. The words must be clear because there is no opportunity to refer to a text. Relationships must be explicit, and information must be conveyed promptly. As opposed to the written novel and in line with the short story, an oral narrative must, according to Vivian Mercier, 'say little, yet imply everything.' Radio transmission is fleeting, and needs the kind of clarity demonstrated by the oral tradition of storytelling.

Because radio drama is young in comparison with other literary forms, it still lacks its own distinctive critical vocabulary, borrowing instead terms from the discussion of prose, poetry, stage-drama, film, painting, music, architecture, philosophy and even the natural sciences. In a comparatively recent compilation of radio drama criticism, John Drakakis laments this general lack of serious discussion, claiming that a focus on technological inventiveness has been given precedence over the establishment of a 'clear set of aesthetic criteria' by which to judge the radio play. Although, as with any art form, there are countless angles from which to analyse radio drama, the particular aesthetic criteria should encompass those elements which are unique to the radio experience. In essence, the structure of a play must depend on both its subject and its medium.