“The farther he goes the more good it does me. I don’t want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him.
He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy — he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not — he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty.
His work is beautiful.” – Harold Pinter on Beckett
We all know Beckett’s work for stage and his novels. Few of us know his radio drama. Until recently, I didn’t even know he wrote any. But in 1955 the BBC, intrigued by the international attention being given to the Paris production of Waiting for Godot, invited the author to write a play for radio. Beckett was initially hesitant, but wrote to his friend the shipping heiress and political activist Nancy Cunard:-
“Never thought about radio play technique but in the dead of t’other night got a nice gruesome idea full of cartwheels and dragging of feet and puffing and panting which may or may not lead to something.”
That ‘nice gruesome idea’ led to All That Fall—and four other plays specifically written for the radio medium between 1957 and 1962. There’s also a sixth – From an Abandoned Work, which I haven’t heard – and a French play, translated as The Old Tune, which comes bundled with the downloads below.
Neither Beckett’s work for stage or his novels, he’d be the first to agree, are exactly big on narrative and his radio drama is no different. Here’s a short synopsis of what does – or doesn’t – happen in those five plays:-
All that Fall: Maddy Rooney, seventy years old, “two hundred pounds of unhealty fat,” makes her laborious way to the Boghill railroad station to meet her blind husband, Dan, as a surprise for him on his birthday.
Embers: Henry sits on the strand, tormented by the sound of the sea. He talks to his drowned father, who doesn’t answer, and to his wife, Ada, who does. Throughout it all the sound of the sea weaves in and out, almost like a third character.
Words and Music: Words, called Bob and Music, called Joe are forced to collaborate by the club-wielding Croak. Under duress they produce two of the most exquisite lyric poems ever written by Samuel Beckett. The play is often understood as as being “about” the agonizing difficulties of the creative process itself.
Cascando: an Opener “opens” and “closes” two characters: Voice, who desperately promises “this time” to tell a story he can finish; and Music, who equally struggles to create a finished composition.
Rough for Radio I: the grumpy MacGillycuddy gets a female visitor then makes a phone-call, receives two in return, finally securing – or perhaps admitting – the information ‘tomorrow…noon’.
Rough for Radio II: an Animator assisted by a Stenographer and the whip wielding mute character, Dick, has the task of eliciting from Fox some unknown testimony of unknown significance. If it could but be achieved then “tomorrow, who knows, we may be free!”
Samuel Beckett’s radio plays available online:
All That Fall (1957)
Words and Music (1962)
‘All that Fall’ and ‘Embers’ are probably the most accessible, unless you’re a total Beckett freak, but I really like Rough for Radio II and Cascando – not because I understand them in particular, but because they’re really beguiling in an aural sense. Maybe he’s not big on conventional narrative but Beckett uses structure to poetic effect like no-one else, both in his other works and his radio drama.
So what’s the deal with radio plays, I hear you ask? English-language-wise, both the US and UK have a rich history of radio drama, spanning the first ‘soaps’ on commercial radio in the US and Orson Welles’ seminal adaptation of HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds” (which used the medium so well, a nation was raised to the edge of panic). And by the mid-1940s, the BBC was producing over 400 radio plays each year. These days, radio drama has a minimal presence on terrestrial radio in the US, but the BBC’s commitment to this most idiosyncratic of media remains strong. In the UK, Radio 4’s daily ‘Afternoon Drama’ attracts an average audience of 500,000. That’s half a million. Five days a week. Fifty two weeks a year. And most of these are not adaptations of novels, short stories or stage plays: they are works written specifically for radio – that is, they take full advantage of the medium.
So again, what’s the deal with radio plays? For me, a good radio play is the next best thing to music, in that the content bypasses the eye and mainlines itself straight into your brain. Cos radio plays are all sound. So far, so obvious, right?
But what does ‘all sound’ actually mean? For the listener, compared with say watching TV drama or films, it means YOU get to create your own version of the characters and story in your own head because sound has to be, after smell, the most connotative of the senses.
What’s the first thing we become aware of, in the womb? Our mother’s heart. One could argue, therefore, that our ears are of primary way of engaging with our environment.
What differentiates homo sapiens from other animals? Speech – and how do we receive speech? Through our ears.
Sound is primal. Sound is personal and thus both subjective and infinitely ambiguous: the same sound will have as many connotations as it has listeners. Sound is intimate: the lover’s whisper, the bully’s hissed threat, the child’s cry, the dog’s howl. Yeah, I’m rambling a bit here, but that’s purely because of the very special and unique relationship each of us has with any given collection of sounds, which in turn renders the aural experience difficult to describe.
Okay, I’ll admit it: there’s something very unnatural feeling about sitting down and listening to radio drama as it is broadcast, whether it’s on an actual radio or via a website. There’s nothing to look at. You (well, I do) start to fidget after the first five minutes. Worse still, I close my eyes in the hope this will let me focus – and I fall asleep. We’re so visually oriented these days, we don’t know what to do with our eyes when we’re not using ‘em to take in information.
Listening is defo a skill. What I do – thanks my digital radio and its sd card – is record plays then transfer ’em over to my mp3 player and take ’em out with me. On walks. On train journeys. On the bus. With my eyes actively engaged in looking at nothing in particular, my ears are freed up to allow the drama to unfold somewhere deep in my brain. And if you’ve never listened to radio drama I urge you to take the plunge, cos at its best? There’s nothing like it.
Other Notable People Who You Might Not Know Have Written Radio Plays
Mr. Pinter : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Slight_Ache
More recently, one of my fav radio plays is Matthew Broughton’s wonderfully eerie The Rain Maker. Due to copyright issues, you can’t download it, but I have an mp3of it, if anyone wants to send me a flash drive. Here’s a link to the writer talking about The Rain maker process:-
Another amazing piece of writing for radio is Jack Thorne’s People Snogging in Public Places. Again, due to copyright issues, this isn’t available to listen to right now, but keep an eye on the radio schedules cos it may be repeated.
Finally, in true Becketian tradition, let me end where I began, with himself. There’s been a recent vogue for ‘staging’ his radio plays: here’s a trailer for one:-
Here’s a Mexican version of Embers, in Spanish:-
Here’s the original 1957 BBC recording of All That Fall – as a bonus, you get to stare at a particularly craggy Sam as you listen.
And here’s a photo from his little known ‘buff’ period.
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Well, I’ve never thought of you as a Tarantino fan. I am a fan of most of his films, and I’ve also heard quite good things about this new one, so I’m very curious to see it for myself. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, B. Ah, of course that’s the best news — that you’re writing something and into it! Keep the muse close. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Yeah, it sounds hot in NYC from everything I hear. Sorry. We’re on the mellow side of hot right now. I hadn’t heard of that Rodney Evans film. Curious. Ha ha, when I saw ‘Hostel’ gay porn was the first thing that sprang to mind. ** Jeff J, Glad you dug it. Yeah, I’m mega-grateful for the currently tolerable heat. Just hoping it hangs out until summer bites the dust. I’ve had the Woosters and Reverdy in group round-up posts, but they haven’t been individually spotlit. I love Reverdy, so let me see what I can sort out, and doing a full-fledged post on the Woosters is a no brainer, now that you mention it. I’ll need to see how much evidence of their shows is online. I think I would want to concentrate on the early to mid-80s period. I’ll check. Good to hear about the new Zambreno and Rose Etter. I’m obviously looking forward to them. ‘Sentimental Education’ is so, so great, right? Yeah, the prose, wow. I’ll look for your email and write you back straight away. ** Misanthrope, I have a feeling I’ll like it. I can’t think of a Tarantino film I haven’t liked to one degree for another. Oh, I didn’t like ‘Death Proof’. But Kurt Russell was great in it. ** Corey Heiferman, Hey there, Corey. Yeah, those posters are sweethearts. Well, technically I’m not a Parisian, I’m just an extremely extended visitor. Fingers remain crossed about film school and that you’ll hear as pronto as possible. No, I’ve never personally been into Tarot. I’m not so very mystically inclined. I’ve had readings done for me. And I’ve even found a couple of them pretty eerie. Mm, hard to have a complex knee-jerk reaction to your film idea as I can’t really picture the place, but I do have a knee-jerk reaction to encourage you to give that idea every chance in the world. I do like Stefan Zweig, yes. I can’t remember if I’ve done a post about him. I’ll check. Enjoy the memoir, man. ** Okay. Today’s restored post is another one that comes quite a long time ago. It was made for this place d.l. Jax aka the writer/ performer/ director Jack Dickson who was one the blog’s most true blue, valuable and beloved community members way back when. I hope you enjoy it, and thank you so much from the future to Jack if you’re out there. See y’all tomorrow.