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|



The BBC: Channels and Changes

  • SHE: How cold you are! [Pause.] Are these the two knobs?

    HE: Yes.

    SHE: Just push? [Pause.] Is it live? [Pause.] I ask you is it live?

    HE: No, you must twist. [Pause.] To the right.


    MUSIC: [Faint.] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


    SHE: [Astonished.] But there are more than one!

    (Rough for Radio I, Beckett, p. 268)

  • From the time of its first broadcast in 1920, the BBC has gone through a number of changes, continuously adapting to shifts in both political and social climates as well as evolving with the various technological advances made in the field. Prior to the war, for instance, the BBC broadcast only two programmes, the National and the Regional, but when war broke out the two were merged into the Home Service. Radio's ability to change its shape according to its obligation to the listening public and the state of the country was confirmed when the General Forces Programme was launched for the purpose of entertaining troops and upholding a link between them and their families at home. The post-war reorganisation that followed was largely developed in relation to the class divisions in society, with the Light-, Home-, and Third Programme each claiming their separate social classes of listeners.

    The Third programme was aimed at the intellectual minority "whose standards were aesthetic and academic, as opposed to domestic" (Bridson, p. 178). This division into intellectual- and light entertainment caused some controversy at the time because it meant that the public could all together avoid what Bridson called "first-rate" productions. This, together with the economic vulnerability of such a minority channel, was valid criticism against its introduction.

    There was, however, an advantage to the fact that the Third Programme attracted fewer listeners than the Light Programme, because it made it possible to broadcast many experimental works which would not have been suitable to impose on a vast audience. Thus, it became a medium and catalyst for the work of the avant-garde in literature and music. George Barnes, who was placed in control of the Third Programme, was actually related to the Bloomsbury group, a fact which certainly helps to account for the atmosphere of artistic innovation surrounding the channel. The ultimate consequence of the Third Programme, therefore, was that more time was available for the broadcasting of serious creative work.

    In the fifties and sixties, when the theatre was bound by censorship, much of the experimental and controversial material was performed at clubs. However, since BBC Radio was not bound by the same restrictions, it was particularly attractive to experimental writers. Radio playwrights found that they did not have to worry about the box office success of their plays in terms of economy or be afraid of offending the kind of mass audience that television attracted, and were therefore free from the self censorship which influenced the other rival institutions. Beckett's plays for radio, too, excluding Cascando which was first broadcast by the French radio station ORTF, all originated on the Third Programme.

    In the early seventies, the BBC Radio programmes were again reorganised, while retaining separate profiles as Radios 1 - 4. Radio 1 became the popular station, with Radio 2 a channel for classical music. The Third Programme became Radio 3 and the Home Service Radio 4. A restructuring in the nineties added a fifth channel to the network, illustrating the public's urge for information through its 24-hour live news broadcasts.

    The sense of immediacy which has accompanied the technological advancement of the recording equipment not only illustrates the pace of the information flow from the world to the listener which radio is capable of supplying, but may also influence the pace and economy of the various broadcasts themselves. If the audience is frequently exposed to snappy fragments of reports and two minute news bulletins, then an hour-long play for voices may seem tedious in comparison. The effect that the pace and fragmentary nature of news broadcasts has had on the broadcasting media, together with the last two decades of digital communication innovation, may perhaps be best illustrated by an example from the cinema. The recent Hollywood production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet seems to follow the aesthetic criteria of what has become known as MTV culture, with rapid and deliberately obtrusive cuts, swish-pan and hand-held camera movements, and a tempo and intonation of speech which resembles rap-music. Martin Amis" recent novels, Money, and The Information, convey the same sense of urgency. Because it is more difficult for radio plays to keep a certain clarity under such disorderly conditions, the trend does not seem to have manifested itself to the same degree in recent radio drama. However, the heightened pace and fragmented time sequences in certain radio plays in the eighties and nineties indicates that the texture of radio drama is closely related to the texture of the other broadcasts.

    Radio critic Gillian Reynolds has questioned the survival of the "single play," suggesting that it is being ousted on radio as well as on television because of the upsurge of serials with their higher commercial value. Jeremy Mortimer, the current head of BBC Radio Drama, has likewise claimed that the idea of the "single play" for radio is in the process of being displaced by a form of what he called a "happening" or an "event" closer to the kind of broadcast Orson Welles contributed with War of the Worlds (1938). Len Deighton's Bomber, which was written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, is one such example. Written as short instalments, it was broadcast at intervals throughout a whole Saturday in order to mimic real time, observing the crew on their mission. Mortimer claims that there is more work in progress adhering to this format.

    With the incorporation of these "happenings," the idea of live drama broadcasts on location might well emerge to echo the realistic effect of spontaneity. However, no matter how impromptu the programmes themselves are, the scheduling must concede to a restructuring in order for such innovation to reach the public. The nature of the scheduling, in fact, must inevitably have an effect not only on the listener, but the author as well. Plays have always had to fit into time slots, and the organisation of genre is presented in such a way that the audience must know loosely what type of listening they are about to embark on.

    Radio drama, therefore, has a certain framework to respect. Although the identifiable profiles of the stations and slots should not hamper the literary quality of the art, it is obvious that levels of obscurity have to be considered by writers who are commissioned to fill a specific slot. Beckett's radio plays, as well as many other experimental plays, would very probably never have been written without the Third Programme's dedication to the avant-garde and Donald McWhinnie's choice of commissioned work. Furthermore, if Beckett had not had the experience of writing for radio, his later plays for the stage would perhaps not have developed stylistically into purely sound based pieces such as Play, Not I, and That Time (see p. 12 below).


    Technological Development

    Radio producers and dramatists have combined and encouraged both the artistic- and the technical development of the art of radio. In terms of technology, the production of radio plays has, needless to say, undergone a revolution from the days when actors were huddled round one single microphone with a director physically pushing them closer to it to deliver their lines, and using all kinds of body language to conduct them through the piece. The development of technology, however, has not only simplified production procedures, it has also enabled the author to incorporate new elements into his writing.

    The dramatic control panel was introduced in 1928, enabling the producers and engineers to mix live from one studio to another. The plays were now performed live from several studios, with a "noise room" set aside for sound effects. With this evolution, a new radio drama department was founded: 'The National Theatre of the Air,' under the supervision of Val Gielgud.

    With the necessity of developing more portable recording equipment to cater for the public's demand for news, the technical production of radio drama also became more practical. The small magnetic tape recorders made it possible to pre-record and edit plays before broadcasting, thus limiting the number of live broadcasts. Some critics, however, believed that the breaking up of a play during the recording resulted in a loss of rhythm and build up of tension because the actors would lose the sense of the continuity of the action. Furthermore, without the added excitement of actors acting and listeners listening simultaneously, the heightened tension in the actor's consciousness would dissolve. Martin Esslin has claimed more recently that radio drama loses the "excitement of spontaneity" which the stage can claim with its live performances (Esslin, p. 78). However, this statement misconceives the nature of radio, and of the recording process itself, ignoring as it does the excitement that the little red recording light in the studio evokes from the actors. Furthermore, spontaneity occurs at the moment of recording, and if it is an asset to the play, it need not be edited out.

    This is not to deny that spontaneous reaction from a live audience can give the actor a still further heightened sensibility. The method of pre-recording and editing calls for supplementary training for the actor, and an awareness of the recording and production procedure on the part of the author. Beckett was always specific in his stage directions, and his ideas of how his plays should be produced allowed little scope for variation. The control which the producer has over a production which is pre-recorded and edited, therefore, suits Beckett's particular demands. Furthermore, the demands Beckett placed on his actors are extremely difficult to carry out in practice live on stage. In his radio play, Cascando (1962), Voice delivers his lines in a rapid, almost unintelligible stream, making the task of acting increasingly difficult as the flow continues. In this play, the voice is suddenly cut off at intervals to create the effect of a pre-recorded narrative. In his later stage play, Not I (1972), a similar torrent of words radiates from Mouth, and in the next stage play, That Time (1974), a pre-recorded rapidly talking voice is projected onto the stage from three different sources.

    In Krapp's Last Tape (1958), Beckett aired his fascination for the technology of sound recording by exploring the figurative consequences of a machine which could, in a sense, capture and chop up voices in time with perfect precision. Just as Tyrone Guthrie challenged the technicians with his ambitious radio plays in the late twenties, the elaborate use of sound in Beckett's All That Fall continued to echo the call for still further advances in radio technology in the late fifties and early sixties.

    In the fifties, a fresh technical development affected radio drama. Frequency modulation (FM) or very high frequency (VHF) enhanced the quality of sound, eliminating practically all interference, thus enabling the listener to perceive the nuances of speech and the play's environment without disruption. Pauses and silences are not recorded in a vacuum, there is always a recorded contentum, even if it is only the silence recorded by a microphone in an empty room. In All That Fall, the pauses and silences often give way to the "background" sound of dragging feet or the empty outdoor sounds of a rural location. In Embers, the breaks between words have an even deeper significance, forming pauses wherein the sound of the sea which haunts the protagonist's mind is faintly manifested. Of course, the new technology did not dispense with the problem of interference altogether since signals inevitably vary. Radio plays are still valid even though the listener's reception may be poor. Beckett, however, was particularly concerned with the details of sounds, and complained on one occasion - after having listened, in Paris, to one of his own plays, broadcast by the BBC - that the reception he obtained on his own radio set obscured the nuances of sound. On the other hand, a Swedish radio critic on Words and Music claimed that "Beckett as a radio writer is of course, something of an adventure: at times the listener doesn"t know for certain whether things sound (or don"t sound) the way they"re supposed to."

    An ally of VHF is stereo, which makes possibly a more dynamic rendering of sound. Different sounds could now be "placed" according to the position of the actor. A voice could therefore be detected spatially, moving to the left or right or up and down as well as moving closer or further away. Characters may thus be perceived, or located, in terms of the microphone's own "viewpoint." This may be static, allowing the voices to do the moving, or in motion, 'moving' the microphone with the characters. The different points of view then afford different effects. If we are below a character, looking up at him, this may evoke a sense of authority (depending of course on the other aspects of his voice as well, such as pitch, volume and timbre). The microphone's point of view also affects our perception of depth of field, allowing us to imagine the distance between us and the character, and between the various characters themselves. With stereo sound, Beckett might have moved Mrs. Rooney gradually from left to right in All That Fall. In this play, however, the microphone moves with the protagonist, so that she appears constantly to be in close-up, producing the effect needed to project her consciousness and establish her as the main character in the play - the one whom we rely on to give us the information which is not conveyed through the dialogue. The other sound effects in the play are faded up rather than moved in a particular direction.

    With the aid of stereo recording, sounds can also be spread out, so that in crowd scenes, for example, the voices do not all come from one point. Or sometimes a single voice can similarly be spread out until it seems to fill the entire sound space. Beckett's own technical requirements for All That Fall resulted in the birth of the BBC 'Radiophonic Workshop' (Drakakis, p. 192).

    Radiophonics is, according to David Wade, "the processing of natural or artificial sound to create special effects . . . an immensely powerful aid to certain kinds of imaginative, invisible drama" (Drakakis, p. 241). Yet, he stresses, it has proved difficult to achieve convincing sounds because "electronic sound, being itself artificial, tends to dehumanise." Wade also refers to Barry Bermange's feature, Inventions for Radio, from the early sixties, in which the distortion effect is overemphasised to the point of irritation. It is obviously the case that all effects must serve the purpose of illustrating the themes in a play. In Donald McWhinnie's production of All That Fall, the opening noises, the "sheep, bird, cow, cock, severally, then together," are de-animalised to technically manipulated human imitations, establishing the strict metre and evading any sense of realism (p. 172). In Embers, the sound representing the sea is so strange that the protagonist must inform the listener of the fact that it is the sound of the ocean. Technology, however, very quickly becomes outdated, so that the future broadcasting of plays which rely too heavily on effects may well be limited.

    Although Beckett's radio plays (All That Fall and Embers in particular) require many stylised sound effects, the more dynamic effects, such as the hissing train and the wind and rain in All That Fall, parody their own function. The less obtrusive effects, such as the cooing doves and the dragging feet, are orchestrated in a strict metric pattern. Thus, they too become farcical, taking on the role of musical instrumentation rather than featuring sounds representing birds or humans in motion. It should be stated that certain sound effects in McWhinnie's productions of Beckett's radio plays have now become old-fashioned. The reason for this is, of course, that we have become conditioned to a far more sophisticated sound technology. At any rate, if we look at the general state of affairs in All That Fall, irrespective of the technical quality of the sound effects, we find that: the bicycle brakes squeak; the bicycle itself bumps along with a flat tyre; the car engine needs to be choked into action; Mrs Rooney's voice is old and broken, and Schubert's Death and the Maiden is played on an old gramophone. Practically every element in All That Fall displays some degree of ageing or decay, so that what we now think of as outdated sound effects may actually serve to emphasise the main theme of the play. There is perhaps also an element of charm involved in listening to radio plays which display the less perfect sound technology of previous decades, just as there is a certain delight involved in viewing the technically less advanced black-and-white films of Eisenstein or Chaplin.

    At present, the digital revolution is affecting the production process in all branches of broadcasting. Editing and effects engineering have become a science of microscopic perfectionism. According to the BBC Drama Department, it is now, in theory, "possible for a producer to put together a drama without ever having to go to a studio." More recent productions of Beckett's radio plays do exist. But what effects, if any, the "digital revolution" will have on new presentations of Beckett's radio work remains to be seen. The original BBC productions of the plays remain English classics, not only due to the skill of his producers, but because Beckett worked closely with his producer during the production process, and was thus able to achieve his own desired effects.


    The Historical Development: Setting, Sound and Themes

    The first full length play broadcast by the BBC was Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (28th of May 1923). John Tydeman, a former head of BBC Radio Drama, maintains that one of the best examples of a play perfect for radio is Macbeth. Certainly, the spatial and temporal relations in the play are easily portrayed on radio. The supernatural element of the witches, the elaborate locations and, of course, the intimate soliloquy are all well suited the non-visible conditions of radio. The magical incantation at the opening of the play, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," promptly, yet poetically, introduces the theme and the mood. The protagonist is immediately introduced and thus associated with this atmosphere, so this prelude can "hover through the fog and filthy air" before the listener can escape its trance. Because it is so easy to switch off a radio set, it is vital to offer the listener something engaging his attention straight away. Shakespeare does this, and for practical reasons, his plays rely on the audience to create the elaborate visual settings in their minds. The sparsity of even implied visual effects, as in any drama, calls for the creativity of the spectator's own imagination.

    As the art of radio drama has evolved, many authors have struggled to find the means of successfully transmitting a sense of setting, as well as seeking to establish the kind of thematic material which will work in the medium. In Danger, the first original play written for radio (broadcast in January 1924), Richard Hughes introduced a setting which isolates his characters from the outside world. Furthermore, the audience was advised to turn off the lights and listen in darkness for the full effect of this new dramatic and blind art form. Danger, featuring three people facing death in a Welsh coal-mine accident, conveys a dialogue between characters who seem to be aware of the fact that they are being overheard. The listener, therefore, is invited into the play. Danger indicates that radio drama is designed for the ears of a lone listener by communicating a sense of intimacy which draws the listener into the action. Beckett's radio plays focused increasingly on the intimate presentation of the protagonist's mind; and his characters, even in the stage plays preceding his radio plays, Godot and Endgame, are acutely aware of being performers.

    Hughes' play, however, tries to create the illusion of a naturalistic set. There is a list of noise requirements, including an explosion, rushing water, footsteps and the sound of a pick. For the setting it is also stated that there must be an echo to conjure up the effect of a tunnel.

  • Lights out. An Announcer tells the audience that the scene is a coal- mine.

    MARY. [sharply]. Hello! What's happened?

    JACK. The lights have gone out!

    MARY. Where are you?

    JACK. Here.

    [Pause. Steps stumbling]

    MARY. Where? I can't find you.

    JACK. Here. I"m holding my hand out.

    MARY. I can"t find it.

    JACK. Why, here!


    MARY. [Startled]. Oh! What's that?

  • (Hughes, p. 175)

    Mary elaborates her horror of darkness by stating that "I wish you hadn't wanted to drop behind the others!" and "I wish we hadn't left these miner's lamp things they gave us behind!" (p. 176). She is overemphasising the fact that they are alone and that it is dark. This suggests that Hughes did not achieve the full authenticity and detail of natural speech ideally needed to accompany the natural sound environment, but prioritised the illustration of the characters' situation through the dialogue. Although Hughes was a stage dramatist and actor, thus sensitive to the delicacy of performance-dialogue, the dialogue in Danger seems to follow the conventions we generally ascribe direct speech in novels.

    That the characters in the play speak as if being overheard does not benefit the otherwise realistic presentation of the play. This seems to be an unsatisfactory solution to the problem of how to broadcast a play on radio which relies heavily on visual information. By contrast, Beckett's radio plays which involve a seemingly realistic setting, All That Fall and Embers, the fact that the characters are aware of their obligation to be perceived by sound alone is vital to the concept of the plays themselves.

    The strength of Danger, however, lies in the motivation behind the dialogue. It deals with the doubts, the hope, the coming to terms with death, the anger, and the dispute between the young and old, that are all released in connection with the situation in which the characters find themselves. The feelings of desperation and of being alone in the dark renew that sincerity of speech which is lost in an alienating society. The play introduces the subject matter of the self and the human condition by trapping the characters in a dark tunnel that becomes analogous to the human mind. The use of a setting which isolates characters has become common in many subsequent plays for radio.

    Tyrone Guthrie, another early catalyst of the radio play, introduced a different setting in order to reveal the psychology behind a character. In his second play for radio, The Flowers Are Not For You To Pick, (1930), his protagonist is drowning in the sea, remembering events from the past. The author's note on the play states that

  • the many short scenes rise out of and sink into a rhythmic sound of splashing, moving seas. This sound should be complex yet symphonic [. . .] by its rhythm and tone it may be possible to suggest not merely the water in which Edward is engulfed, but the beating of a heart, the tumult of fear, the immutable laws and irresistible strength of Nature compared with our puny and inconsistent selves.
  • The scenes from a dying man's childhood are separated by the sound of waves. Guthrie wanted the rhythm and tone of the waves not only to provide the actual setting, but also to evoke the figurative associations of "the beating of the heart, the tumult of fear, the immutable laws and irresistible strength of Nature." In doing this, he does not rely on the dialogue to inform the listener of the character's condition in the way Hughes' dialogue did. Guthrie, therefore, seems to have a clearer idea of how to reach the listener's imagination by using sound effects which are not supposed to be realistic. However, it also seems that the extravagant sound score tries too hard to make up for the loss of a visual stage set, and therefore becomes obtrusive.

    In Ray Bradbury's Kaleidoscope (1949), a group of astronauts are similarly facing the last moments of their lives after having been thrown from their space shuttle and into the complete darkness of space itself. Bradbury adapted the play for radio himself, understanding a medium suitable to communicate the image of characters floating alone in space yet able to communicate by radio. The characters are drifting away from each other, and the fact that they are able to communicate their frustrations by radio draws attention to the limited range of radio signals together with the urge to communicate. Gradually the voices disappear out of range. Each character's silence marks his death in a nightmarish way which could not possibly be matched on stage or in a written text. The voices simply fade away into space where they are truly alone.

    In Susan Hill's The Cold Country (1972), the four characters are stranded in a tent in desolation as a result of the weather conditions. She too explores the limits of human perseverance in the face of doom. Beckett, however, isolates his characters in a different way. They are not trapped by any external forces, and seem to have a limited field of external perception and are instead obsessed with self-perception. Their limited mobility is a result of physical degradation. In Embers, Henry, though mobile, sits on the strand trapped in his own mind. In All that Fall, Mrs. Rooney is mobile, though physically disabled. She does pay attention to her surroundings, but only to elaborate the associations they evoke in her own mind. In Words and Music and Cascando, there seems to be no scenery at all. The physical location of Beckett's characters, therefore, is not a catalyst for exposing the human mind as it is for the characters of Hughes, Bradbury and Hill. It seems, instead, that Beckett is able to isolate his characters in any medium, opening up their minds to show that some awareness of the ultimate the futility of trying to understand the human condition is ever present in the human mind. Radio simply supplied Beckett with a medium which allowed for complete visual anonymity.

    Voice and Dialogue

    The debate as to what kind of dialogue is best suited to radio drama reflects the idea that there are certain criteria which the playwright must follow. Guthrie was opposed to the realist approach to dialogue because a "faithful transcript of real life is almost inevitably dull" (Rodger, p. 16). It is true that such a transcript may be dull. On the other hand, a focus on natural speech in dramatic dialogue can highlight some rather obscure elements of real life speech. In Pinter's plays, for instance, language is often the source of power. His dialogues include colloquialisms and advertising language which is intrinsically ambiguous. Beckett also uses colloquial language in his plays, drawing attention to set phrases which have become meaningless, but which should not be underrated in literature. (In a similar manner, the animator Nick Park has drawn attention to the nature of natural speech by conducting interviews and eavesdropping with a microphone, using the material later to create the transcript for his brilliant Oscar winning film Creature Comforts (1990), in which the natural pre-recorded comments are spoken by clay-mation zoo-animals.) The humour of incongruity through which we recognise the funnier side of natural human speech and conduct is very much present in Beckett's plays for radio as well as in those for the stage, where the cartoon-like, sometimes grotesque characters exhibit their essentially human nature. It is evident, therefore, that a faithful transcript of real life dialogue does not have to be dull if it is presented in a dramatic environment which draws attention to its obscurities. In practice, the broader question as to what criteria the radio playwright should respect in his construction of dialogue obviously depends in part on the genre and structure of the particular play in question, no less than on the inherent artistic advantages and disadvantages of the medium generally.

    Another important aspect of radio drama production is the selection of the actual voices for the plays. Radio requires certain types of voices in order to prevent confusing the listener. The 'Drama Repertory Company' was established as early as 1925, and the BBC still has its own pool of actors selected for their vocal nuances. In line with this, theatre schools provide courses designed specifically for radio acting.

    Clas Zilliacus has claimed that casting for radio is more important than for the theatre (Zilliacus, p. 65). However, what is definitely true is that in the casting process the producer must focus on different aspects of the actor's abilities. Beckett distrusted the idea of actors imitating reality on stage, and his radio actors were similarly made aware of this fact. Zilliacus mentions that Jack MacGowran attempted to pad his lines slightly since he was playing a minor character, but with a growing understanding of the emptiness of the Beckett being's condition, he realised that the lines were to be stripped of emotion. "The more distinctive [the voice] is, the more it co-defines the words it utters" (Zilliacus, p. 67). Beckett's voices, therefore, must not only be comprehensible and separable from each other, but they must also reflect the characters' emptiness, and draw attention to the fact that they are not real. The low panting of Voice in Cascando does not open up for a study of the character's personality.

  • -story . . . if you could finish it . . . you could rest . . . sleep . . . not before. . . oh I know . . . the ones I've finished . . . thousands and one . . . all I ever did . . . in my life . . . saying to myself . . . finish this one . . . it's the right one . . . then rest . . . sleep . . . no more stories . . . no more words . . . (Beckett, p. 297)
  • The exhaustion in the pant echoes the exhaustion of the words rather than creating a real sense of the character.

    Another narrative style which is widely accepted as particularly effective on radio is the 'stream of consciousness.' Certainly, a subjective monologue is an intimate method of communication, and may thus be an example of a literary broadcast to the individual listener rather than to a vast audience. Words emanating directly from the mind naturally bypass a concrete visual dimension. Critics have drawn attention to the fact that Tyrone Guthrie's third play, Matrimonial News, and Virginia Woolf's novel, Mrs Dalloway, deal with a similar subject and theme: the unstable woman and urban loneliness. The announcer's voice opens Guthrie´s play with:

  • What follows is supposed to be the happenings in the mind of Miss Florence Kippings. . . The time is about a quarter to twelve, midday. She has ordered a cup of coffee. Remember, you are overhearing her thoughts - she is alone. (Conference Papers, p. 131)
  • "Stream of consciousness" on radio effectively creates the illusion that the listener is being entrusted with the secret thoughts of the subject. The fact that the subject has no concrete physical shape on a stage for us to look at helps to uphold this illusion simply because watching the words come out of the character's mouth would imply that the character is consciously constructing a narrative to be told. I agree, therefore, that radio upholds the illusion of "raw exposure to the mind" better than the stage does, though I do not agree that "stream of consciousness" necessarily benefits from being broadcast rather than read in silence. However, in the case of Beckett's novel, The Unnamable, it is perhaps difficult for the reader, by way of silent reading, to achieve the unleisurely tempo and sense of urgency which textures the protagonist's voice. In this novel, there is only the voice, so that although we are compelled to read the words, they are actually all spoken.


    Sounds vs. Words

    Tyrone Guthrie expressed enthusiasm for "the purely symphonic possibilities" of sound radio, applying its techniques to his own radio work, such as Squirrel's Cage. In the central interlude of this play, which is built up of six scenes separated by five interludes breaking the stream, Guthrie stresses that the scene and interlude must follow one another without a break.

  • After the end of each episode there should be a stroke of a bell, then the scream of a siren, suggesting a rush through time and space. The "scenes" should be played very intimately in a rather low key; in contrast to the "interludes", which are to be bold and reverberating, each one working up to a thunderous climax. (Rodger, p. 17)
  • This kind of sound play was criticised by Val Gielgud, among others, who opposed the avant-garde notion of the radio play "composed of purely abstract sounds" (Rodger, p. 19). I agree with Gielgud´s criticism to a certain extent: extravagant sound effects and distorted musical accompaniment have sometimes been overemphasised, so that certain plays become examples of radio's technical possibilities rather than dramatic plays for the medium. However, L. Du Garde Peach´s statement that "in a radio-play, words are everything," is perhaps going too far in the other extreme.

    Lance Sieveking protested against Peach´s notion, denouncing his subordination of sound effects. Sieveking wanted to draw attention to elements of radio drama other than the words alone. His directions for his own Kaleidoscope, "fade up cello playing alternatively two notes. . . Double local mix gun clap. . . Bring up all studios and mix"em good," demonstrates his attempt to produce an abstract musical effect for his plays (Sieveking, pp. 386-87). Indeed, it is possible to create a play without words at all. Andrew Sach used no dialogue whatsoever in his more recent radio play Revenge, which includes a cross-country chase, a police ambush and a vicious murder, forcing himself to tell his story by other means.

    Beckett's radio plays, with the possible exception of All That Fall, do not include a dramatic plot which drives the action forwards. His characters are often physically static and incapable of progressive mental development. The overall impression we are given in the plays following All That Fall is of a freeze-frame picture or a time warp rather than a chronological stream. Similarly, the words and dialogue do not contribute to an aim oriented plot. Characters try to create narratives, but they turn away from their efforts, and instead speak a stumbling language which compliments the static action to create a more expressionistic effect. They speak in short, sometimes broken sentences focusing on the same thing, often repeating their own exact words. Beckett seems to focus on words only to mock their limitations, thus favouring the abstract expressionistic effect which Sieveking and Guthrie worked towards.

    Thus, as these examples show, discussion of radio literature, even in the early stages, has frequently incorporated the view that radio drama should have the same effect on the mind of the listener as music, prioritising more abstract expressionistic qualities, rather than focusing on the development of a plot.

    Trends in Radio Broadcasting

    Luigi Pirandello's The Man with the Flower in his Mouth was the first play to be broadcast on BBC television in 1930. Pirandello is ranked with Brecht and Beckett as one of the foremost innovators in the theatre of this century. This demonstrates that the BBC was, from the outset, committed to introducing a wider range of literature than merely the established classics. Many foreign playwrights, especially avant-garde writers, were initially introduced to Britain via radio: Ugo Betti, Brecht, Buchner, Camus, Cocteau, Chelderode, Puecher, Robles and Supervielle, among others. Ian Rodger claims that this infiltration of influence from outside Britain levitated many British writers out of their state of insularity (Rodger, p. 107). Although it is difficult to believe that British playwrights were not already familiar with these foreign writers, it is true that the public had not generally been exposed to their work. The experimental avant-garde pieces of Max Frisch, Slawomir Mrozek and Vaclav Havel were likewise first introduced to the British public by Martin Esslin, who followed Val Gielgud as head of BBC dadio drama.

    In terms of artistic innovation, broadcasting critics tend to dedicate the forties to the BBC's features department. What is important in this context was the dramatic and experimental nature of these features or documentaries. Ian Rodger defines the task of the feature writers not as that of making a play out of the debates and the subjects of the feature, but to present the subject dramatically to make it more attractive to the listener (Rodger, p. 90). Val Gielgud defines the feature as "any program item, not basically in dramatic form, designed to make use of radio-dramatic technique in its presentation to the listener." But that is too easy. The definition of "dramatic form" is something that must always be open to debate. The feature, therefore, seems to be an offshoot of the very essence of radio-potential, claiming a freedom from theatrical convention. As a result of this, it is the choice of subject matter for a given programme that must really set the parameters for the programme maker. In other respects the range of possible structure and form are virtually infinite.

    D. G.. Bridson's verse narrative, The March of the 45, first broadcast in February 1936, Louis MacNeice's poetic Christopher Columbus (1942), Dorothy L. Sayers' drama serial The Man Born to be King (1942) and Frances Dillon's folk tune inspired Rumpelstiltskin (1949) are frequently sited as prime examples of the innovative atmosphere in the feature department. The feature writers and producers drew the arts of poetry, narration, dialogue and music into their presentations, gathering all forms fitting for the medium and subject matter.

    The fact that so many of the initial feature creators were originally both writers and producers may account for the success of the department and its achievements toward a greater understanding of radio. A writer who is also responsible for the production of his own work must have a command and awareness of the practical potential of the medium. A current producer at the BBC, Enyd Williams, stressed in an interview the close relationship between the writer and producer during the recording and production of plays, in connection with the difficulties of realising exactly what effect is needed to evoke the effect intended, and deciding what is actually possible. Donald McWhinnie, who produced All That Fall, Embers and Cascando for the BBC, became a close friend of Beckett, who was living in Paris when his plays for radio were written, and McWhinnie's experience of British radio features no less than of drama must have coloured his exchanges with Beckett.

    Douglas Cleverdon, who produced Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood (1954), advised Thomas to forget about plot and to construct the play in a similar manner to that which is evident in feature productions, following the events in Llareggub from morning to night (Rodger, p. 73). Thomas' direct speech in the play is not in the style of conversation, but is delivered in a poetic stream. The lyrical qualities of his narrators have been compared to the language of James Joyce (Conference Papers, p. 138). Peter Lewis compares the narrators in the play to a camera eye. Indeed, they seem to move with the smoothness of a steady-cam through the Welsh village, with a "density of tropes, rhetorical devices and alliteration" (Lewis, p. 139). Thomas" establishing shot is a scene of its own and beckons to the listener:

  • . . . Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

    Come closer now.

    Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets

    in the slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night.

    Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the combs.

    and petticoats. . . .

    Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the

    sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and

    colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and

    wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas

    of their dreams.

  • Lewis stresses the non dramatic nature of the play, reasoning that the underlying impulse and organising principle is lyrical. The voices and words in Beckett's radio plays do not have the aesthetic lyrical qualities we see in Thomas' work. Instead, Beckett, hints at the possibility of such a poetic narrative in his inner narratives, only to evade it in the play as a whole. Like Thomas, however, Beckett in his radio plays generally shows a similar preference for underlying musical structure rather than dramatic plot. Although it is unlikely that Beckett was directly influence by Thomas' structural principals in particular, the existence of feature programmes such as Under Milk Wood certainly revealed the possibilities of a genre which opens up for the experimentation with dramatic convention.

    In the period up until the early fifties, few plays were written specifically for radio and, as Val Gielgud has pointed out, it was most often the adaptation of the classic stage play that attracted the audience. "A play labelled "experimental" might as well have been labelled "poison,"" Gielgud concludes (p. 68).

    A similar problem arose later with the popular demand for the light serial. The air was instead dominated by features together with the introduction of serials such as The Robinson Family (starting 1938), ITMA (1939), Mrs Dale's Diary, The Archers (1951) and Dick Barton (1946). These, according to Rodger, were a result of Australian and American influence (p. 86). In the United States, of course, the serial still dominates radio drama output.

    The reason for the popularity of the soap serials lies partly with the way they are structured, looking back to the serial publication of nineteenth century novels. The action is left unresolved and full of tension at the end of every episode so that the listener will be motivated to catch the next part. Because the serial attracted such a large audience, however, the audience itself became an active force in the shaping of the drama demanding settings and characters in which they could recognise their own situation. The characters became so believable, according to Rodger, that with time the Dale family took on a more and more recognisable role in real society, moving from the suburb into the new town and becoming members of the NHS.

    The drama for the masses, therefore, required the kind of realism and social consciousness which reflected the political climate of that age. Television drama echoed this tendency in the sixties with a move to naturalism seen in films by Ken Loach and David Mercer, among others. Loach's feature film, Poor Cow (1968), is presented in a style very close to the documentary style, with its arbitrary cutting and amateur actors.

    Don Haworth has claimed that the television play in the sixties and seventies addressed itself to a socially political agenda because that was what was considered worthy at the time (Drakakis, p. 236). David Wade suggests that radio adopted the same emphasis for the same reason. However, although the subject matter dealt with in both radio plays and television plays in the sixties was equally centred on political awareness, the structure generally portrayed by the radio playwrights was not so close to the documentary style we find in Ken Loach's films.

    Don Haworth's radio play On a Day in a Garden in Summer (1975) dealt with political issues, but the play was populated by characters who were actually garden plants. Caryl Churchill's The Ants (1962), presents insects as a metaphor for the lack of feeling and empathy in human life and society wherever appearances take precedence. It seems to me that radio plays in the sixties and seventies, therefore, were in general closer to "kitchen sink" drama or social and political allegory than to a pure realistic, impromptu documentation of events, or to the kind of existential and Absurd work that Beckett produced.

    Jeremy Mortimer considers that fruitful development of the radio play as a genre declined towards the seventies, as thrillers, classics and soaps were given precedence. These did generally not contribute towards a radiogenic aesthetic. In the eighties, however, there was an explosion of fringe theatre which brought more names to radio. Writers were frustrated at not being able to stage their work in the theatres because of the production costs, and so radio brought back a lost generation of stage writers.

    The eighties also produced a more filmatic grammar to convey poetic and powerful drama. Writers such as Howard Barker (Scenes From an Execution), James Saunders and David Powel, among others, composed short scenes, fluid time sequences, monologues and sound scores with a different structure. The drama documentary of the eighties and nineties has also seen the initiation of a style which includes more improvisation in the form of hand-held microphones and snatches of conversation, in line with the heightened pace of information flow as previouslt noted.

    Reference has already been made to radio-work by authors primarily regarded as poets. The 'Experimental Hour' was inaugurated with a verse play by Archibald MacLeish in 1937. Louis MacNeice similarly brought verse into both his features and drama, with units of speech which reveal a fondness for what Denis Donoghue calls, "the exciting effect of verse rhythms operating on the mind of the listener." Considering the obvious disadvantage of the stage, trapping the imagination by forcing set visual images on the viewer, one can appreciate the freedom of association which poetry contributes to the field of literature, quite apart from the structural components of rhythm and beat. Verse is in radio-technical terms primarily a device. There is an element of detachment in verse and poetic diction which is demonstratively banished from the kind of situation drama which tries to mimic the social reality of the characters, comparing it to that of the listener.

    Beckett, however, turns to the other extreme. He deprives himself of figurative poetically aesthetic language, and his verse is a demonstration of awkwardness in the same way that Schoenberg's 'sprechtstimme' de-aestheticises the singing voice:


  • WORDS. [Trying to sing, softly.]

    Age is when to a man

    Huddled o"er the ingle

    Shivering for the hag

    To put the pan in the bed

    And bring the toddy [...] (Words and Music, Beckett, p. 291)

  • He ends with a long pause. Vivian Mercier professes that "Beckett the lyric poet has a defective ear," claiming that his poems contain lines whose rhythms are of the "bad prose" variety (Mercier, p. 134). In Words and Music, Words is juxtaposed with Music in a struggle for expression. Music wins, and Words" pretentious attempted poetic lyrics are silenced. Beckett does, however impose a strict rhythm on the spoken words in his radio plays, and can perhaps seem in this to be parodying the more pretentious rhythmic qualities of the earlier verse radio plays, such as those by MacNeice. In Embers, for instance, there are episodes with an extremely mechanical rhythm which demonstrate the protagonist's detachment from his own emotions (see e.g. dialogue between Ada and Henry quoted on p. 34 below).


    Comedy, Madness and the Absurd

    In All That Fall, Beckett points up the aspect of persistence in Mrs. Rooney's character with a meta-comment. Nine lines have lapsed since she last spoke, so she needs to assert herself. "Do not imagine, because I am silent, that I am not present, and alive to all that is going on," she says (Beckett, p. 185). The fact is that much of the humour in radio plays derives from a farcical self-awareness of the work having been created for radio. In Louis MacNiece´s The Dark Tower (1946), for instance, the dragon and the tower itself are never seen. They are sought, and stories are told about them, but they are not visible to the eyes of the characters involved, giving them the same mysteriousness as they evoke in the mind of the listener.


    I don"t know but . . . nobody's seen this dragon.


    Seen him? They"ve seen what he's done!

    Have you never talked to Blind Peter?

    . . . But before you leave - if you want a reason for leaving -

    I recommend that you pay a call on Peter.

    And his house is low; mind your head as you enter.

    (Another verbal transition)

    BLIND PETER. (old and broken)

    That's right, sir, mind your head as you enter.

    Now take that chair, it's the only one with springs,

    I saved it from my hey-day. Well now, sir,

    It's kind of you to visit me. I can tell

    By your voice alone that you"re your father's son;

    Your handshake's not so strong though. (MacNeice, p. 32)

  • Blind Peter is the informer who stopped seeing because he had seen enough. There is, of course, tragic irony in Peter's blindness, just as there is in Gloucester's in King Lear, but the humorous self irony of the characters existing in terms of voice is here followed up by a kind of vocal slapstick in the idiomatic double of the "father's son." The equivalent of a filmatic swish-pan cutting from scene to scene is also smooth and comic because it is made obvious to us. This paradox is what creates the self awareness which lies at the heart of more experimental radio drama. In Beckett's Embers, when the protagonist's mind focuses on events from the past, the transition is similarly orchestrated through sound effects, and a logical continuation of the dialogue. Henry, alone on the strand, is communicating, in his mind, with his wife. He gets up and walks towards the sea, and as Ada calls after him, he is transferred to a different time.

  • ADA: . . . Don't wet your good boots.


    HENRY: Don't, don't . . . .

    [Sea suddenly rough.]

    ADA: [Twenty years earlier, imploring.] Don't! Don't!

    HENRY: [Ditto, urgent.] Darling!

    ADA: [Ditto, more feebly.] Don't!

    HENRY: [Ditto, exultantly.] Darling!

    [Rough sea. Ada cries out. Cry amplified, cut off. End of evocation. Pause. Sea calm. He goes back up deeply shelving beach. Boots laborious on shingle ...] (Beckett, p. 259-60)

  • The transposition here is only in time, and Beckett uses the smooth transition which radio is capable of relating in order to express the way the mind works. The mental tangent, therefore is cut off suddenly, drawing attention to the character's momentary lapse of consciousness, as an expression of the lack of control the conscious has over the unconscious. Beckett, therefore does not jump in time and space in the way MacNeice does, but he does draw attention to the nature of the transition.

    In The Goon Show, a popular radio comedy series in the fifties, we find a similar kind of self-awareness. The characters, because they know they are bodiless radio characters, are able to inflict horrific physical injuries on themselves. The kind of listening offered by the Goons is a form of comic absurdism much like the atmosphere of lunacy inhabited by cartoon characters.

  • BLOODNOK: Eccles, stand on my shoulders and pull me up.

    ECCLES: I"d like to see them do this on television.

    (Lewis, p. 58)

  • This abstract demonstration of physicality lends itself naturally to radio, and the extreme farcical quality of the humour may perhaps be seen as a pre-conditioning of the audience for other kinds of absurd drama of a less farcical sort.

    Martin Esslin and Irving Wardle are among those who have pointed out that radio is a natural domain for the theatre of the Absurd. Frances Gray has maintained that the absurdist dramatists tend to exhibit a world on stage where nothing is certain. This is done either by using a naturalistic set "consistent with nineteenth-century certainty," such as in Sartre's plays or, as in Ionesco's Rhinoceros (1938), with "sets and actions full of fantasy" (Drakakis, p. 145). Radio is, of course, well equipped to uphold the uncertainty of physical facts, even to the existence of characters such as the mute match-seller in Pinter's A Slight Ache (1959). Like Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party (for the stage), who create a particular diffusion or uncertainty by their power to confuse and torment the mind, many of Pinter's characters, even in his stage plays, have a transparent texture. Ruth, in The Homecoming , is transparent both in her words and presence. Though frequently ignored, she is the object and subject of power in the microcosm of domesticity and sexual assertion. She has the ability to make aspects of herself transparent and draw attention to others;

  • Look at me. I . . . move my leg. That's all it is. But I wear . . . underwear. . . which moves with me . . . captures your attention. Perhaps you misinterpret. The action is simple. It's a leg . . . moving. My lips move. Why don"t you restrict . . . your observations to that? Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant . . . than the words which come through them. You must bear that . . . possibility . . . in mind.
  • The radio author, however, has greater freedom to conduct metamorphosis and transposition of realities on the set, and of the characters" physical and mental states. In Rough for Radio, Beckett introduced a silent character, Dick, and in Words and Music and Cascando, of course, he treats Music more or less as a character in its own right. Beckett also has an almost unrivalled fondness for unidentified objects in his writings. In All That Fall, Mrs. Rooney identifies an object which is handed to her husband as "a kind of ball," concluding that "yet it is not a ball" (p. 199). This allows Beckett to impose a symbol which, because it cannot be visually verified by the audience, is nothing but a symbol for ambiguity itself.

    Radio is "par excellence, the medium for the depiction of madness," claims Angela Carter, "for the exploration of the private worlds of the old, the alienated, the lonely." Yet, plays which render such inner lives have become "Radio Three clich?, along with the apocalypses and Kafkaesque existential confrontation set in nameless, featureless places," she continues. This fear of quasi-highbrow psychological intellectualism, however, may well have served a purpose in itself, because characters may be aware of the fact that their minds are tormented, and can speculate openly as to whether there is a way out of their suffering. Mrs Rooney in All That Fall, for instance, tries to use only the simplest language so that her torment is not obscured in any lofty prosody. Instead of merely abandoning his characters in Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Embers and All that Fall as paranoiacs in a purgatorial void, Beckett sentences them to a kind of fruitless speculativism in a penal ghetto. A ghetto, either in the mind at large, as in The Unnamable and Embers, or in a featureless world, as in Waiting for Godot, where they display their essentially simple human traits and worries, and comment on the fact that there is practically no scenery around. The inner voice, as opposed to that of the Elizabethan soliloquy, has become a channel for regressive mental fumbling, resulting in the kind of black comedy or slapstick which in turn mocks the intellectual scepticism.

    In Giles Cooper's radio play, Under the Loofah Tree (1958), Edward snaps in and out of his consciousness as he retains a kind of pathetic and ruthless playfulness. As opposed to Tyrone Guthrie's The Flowers are not for you to Pick (1930), Edward is in his private bathtub undergoing a series of flashbacks which are partially brought on by his actual communication with his wife, Muriel, and his surroundings, and partially by his misinterpretation of these and his mental regression into worst case scenarios. He returns with a "splash-back" into reality. The play is punctuated by trivial or stock noises which perhaps serve as comic relief in places:

  • MURIEL: It's all right, dear; Daddy will look after us. But, Ted, I can"t go on.

    EDWARD: I"ll carry you.

    MURIEL: No, Ted, let's just stay in here in the ditch and rest.

    EDWARD: We"ll die.

    RORY: Want to go sleepy.

    MURIEL: And so you shall, my pet. And so will we all. For ever.

    (Another roll of thunder and the howl of the wind. The duck quacks)

  • The rubber duck offers the pathetic image of Edward's soul- companion.

    In The Disagreeable Oyster (1957), Cooper divides his character into two. Bundy Minor is inside Bundy Major, unable to get out. Minor comments on Major´s actions and rejoinders like a delinquent narrator. According to Cooper, he divided his character in two because Bundy "has a lot to say to himself" (Cooper, p. 84). The major and minor characters are opposites in terms of personality, creating a comic incongruity between the actual conservative conduct of Major, and the Puck-like motivating force of Minor. Minor, although frustrated by his abstract existence is equally baffled when he gains a hint of recognition in the closing lines.

  • BUNDY: How much?

    BAKER: Nothing to pay. Share it between the two of you.

    BUNDY: Thank you.

    BAKER: If you want to catch your train, you"d better run.

    BUNDY MINOR: I"m tired.

    BAKER: That's right, you want to go home.

    BUNDY MINOR: Oh yes.

    BUNDY: Good-bye!

    (Running feet. They stop)

    BUNDY MINOR: (Out of breath) What did he mean by "The two of you"?

    (Distant train whistle)

    BUNDY: (Out of breath) No idea. Come on, run like a lamplighter.

    (Running feet. Church bells up, jangling and clashing. Some are tinny little tinkles, some massive great Bourdons. They come to a peak and then fade) (Cooper, p. 24)

  • The general plot of the play is centred around Bundy's business excursion to repair an "inconsistent error" on a machine in the town of Stoddershunt, which is a kind of comic Kafkaesque Llareggub.

    The Kafkaesque, I would claim, similarly evolves towards the comic. Joe Orton's The Ruffian On the Stair (1964) hints at paranoiac conspiracy in the very opening of the stage script, when Joyce asks: "Have you got an appointment today?" and Mike answers: "Yes. I"m to be at King's Cross station at eleven. I"m meeting a man in the toilet." When Joyce enquires what he did the day before, he answers:

  • I went to Mickey Pierce's. I"d a message to deliver. I had a chat with a man who travels in electrically operated massage machines. He bought me a ham roll. It turns out he's on the run. He didn"t say as much in so many words. (He winks.) But I gathered.
  • Orton parodies the seriousness with which the trivial is treated.

    Tom Stoppard, similarly, in If You"ll be Glad, I"ll be Frank (1966), gives us a world of illogical conspiracy, commenting on futility in a different way from Beckett. The triviality of a speaking clock is juxtaposed with the race of time and its universal power over the lives of men. At the same time, Gladys" inner thoughts are juxtaposed with her mechanical recital of the time at ten second intervals. The play, however, alienates from the outside rather than the inside, unlike Beckett's radio drama. Because the alienation in Stoppard's play is mainly a result of the technological forces of a particular age, it loses its effect as times change. It is perhaps primarily this, together with other writers" tendency towards social and political allegory, which isolates Beckett in the development of radio drama. He uses the medium as a comment on perception; and the psychological state of his characters echoes the silence of doing nothing, rather than fleeing from, or searching for, something external.

    It is difficult to know how much radio drama Beckett actually listened to himself, so we cannot know whether the radio play writing techniques practised by other radio writers directly influenced his own work for the medium. Furthermore, Beckett was, of course, living in Paris when he wrote his plays, and the French radio producers did not seem as dedicated as the Third Programme producers to capturing the avant-garde writers for their audience. However, Clas Zilliacus points out that the avant-garde writers in Paris themselves were not enthusiastic about writing for radio partly because of the RTF's close links to the French government. Instead, some writers wrote for foreign companies (Zilliacus, p. 117-18). The Prix Italia awards are perhaps the most prestigious radio awards, so that Italy was certainly among the countries which encouraged innovative radio writing. Germany, too, has always been famous for its 'horspiel,' with avant-garde writers such as Peter Handke contributing to its output. The Third Programme, as previously noted, adapted plays by Beckett's Parisian peers - as well as those by other European avant garde writers - for radio, and translated original work, even by Japanese writers; so that Beckett would certainly have been able to learn about radio technique through the BBC. However, in light of what we know about his listening and reading habits, Beckett's input, it seems, came primarily from literature not necessarily designed for the ears, and from music, designed purely for that sense faculty. This fact is reflected in his radio plays.