Hear Samuel Beckett’s Avant-Garde Radio Plays: All That Fall, Embers, and More

Think of radio plays, and you most like­ly think (or I most like­ly think) of the for­m’s Amer­i­can “gold­en age” in the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. That time and place in radio dra­ma con­jures up a cer­tain more or less defined set of sen­si­bil­i­ties: rock­et­ships hurtling toward unknown worlds, hard-bit­ten detec­tives stick­ing to their cas­es, sub­ur­ban cou­ples bick­er­ing about the behav­ior of their jalopy-dri­ving chil­dren. By the 1950s, the con­ven­tions of radio plays had ossi­fied too much even for old-time radio audi­ences. Who best to call to tear up the form and start it over again? Why, Samuel Beck­ett, of course.

“In 1955 the BBC, intrigued by the inter­na­tion­al atten­tion being giv­en to the Paris pro­duc­tion of Samuel Beckett’s Wait­ing for Godot (see a ver­sion here), invit­ed the author to write a radio play,” says the short his­to­ry pro­vid­ed in the pro­gram of the Beck­ett fes­ti­val of Radio Plays. Though hes­i­tant, Beck­ett nev­er­the­less wrote the fol­low­ing to a friend: “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 “grue­some idea” led, accord­ing to the pro­gram, not just to Beck­et­t’s 1956 radio-play debut All That Fall, but four more to fol­low over the next twen­ty years.

At the top of the post, you can lis­ten to that first 70-minute son­ic tale of an old, obese Irish house­wife, the blind hus­band she meets at the train sta­tion as a birth­day sur­prise, and all the chil­dren, eccentrics, weath­er, and thor­ough­ly Beck­et­t­ian dia­logue that give tex­ture to the death-obsessed jour­neys from home and back to it. All That Fall received crit­i­cal acclaim, but the lat­er radio play just above, the next year’s 45-minute Embers, found a more mixed recep­tion — to the delight, one imag­ines, of most Beck­ett fans, who tend to pre­fer the divi­sive stuff to an agreed-upon canon any­way.

Built out of two mono­logues, a dia­logue, and the sounds of the sea, Embers’ “rather ragged” script (in the words of Beck­ett him­self, who lat­er took the blame for the“too dif­fi­cult” text) presents us with an inar­tic­u­late pro­tag­o­nist who leaves us with many more ques­tions than answers. But just as in the work acknowl­edged as Beck­et­t’s best, the ques­tions we come away with send us in more inter­est­ing direc­tions than do the answers pro­vid­ed in main­stream radio dra­ma — or in main­stream any­thing else, for that mat­ter. And amid all this writ­ing for tape rather than stage, what not­ed work did he come with in 1958 for the stage? Why, Krap­p’s Last Tape, of course.

Samuel Beck­et­t’s radio plays avail­able online:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Samuel Beck­ett Directs His Absur­dist Play Wait­ing for Godot (1985)

Mon­ster­piece The­ater Presents Wait­ing for Elmo, Calls BS on Samuel Beck­ett

Rare Audio: Samuel Beck­ett Reads Two Poems From His Nov­el Watt

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Gonzalo I. Gil says:

    On a doc­u­men­tary on Beck­ett Samuel Beck­ett: Silence to Silence doc­u­men­tary (1991) avail­able on youtube there is an actor that reads from Beckett´s “Mur­phy” at 23:19min. I would like to know if you were to hap­pen to know his name as I would like to buy audio­books by Beck­ett inter­pret­ed by this actor whose name is unknown to me. Apolo­gies if I am abus­ing of your good­will with this ques­tion, but I have looked on the net and have yet to find an answer.


    Gon­za­lo I. Gil.

  • Portal says:

    I have been seek­ing this infor­ma­tion for quite a while. About 1 hours of online brows­ing, at last I found it in your arti­cle. I dont under­stand why Google dont rank this sort of infor­ma­tive web sites in the top SERP. Gen­er­al­ly the first few web­sites are rub­bish. Maybe it is time to change to oth­er search engine.

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