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THE SILENCE THAT IS NOT SILENCE:
ACOUSTIC ART IN SAMUEL BECKETT'S EMBERS
by MARJORIE PERLOFF
Forthcoming in Lois Oppenheim, ed. Samuel Beckett and the Visual Arts: Music, Visual Arts, and Non-Print Media. N.Y.: Garland Publishing, 1998.
The primary purpose of radio is to convey information from one place to another through the intervening media (i.e. air space, nonconducting materials) without wires.
--New Columbia Encyclopedia
-- Thesis: The phonograph emphasizes the self in the lack of subject. This machine bears a paradox: it identifies a voice, fixes the deceased (or mortal) person, registers the dead and thus perpetuates his living testimony, but also achieves his automatic reproduction in absentia: my self would live without me --horror of horrors!
--Charles Grivel, "The Phonograph's Horned Mouth"
The Beckett who began to write radio plays in the mid-fifties was no stranger to the medium: in Roussillon, where he lived in hiding from 1942-45, the radio transmitter was the crucial information conduit for Resistance groups, and the BBC, which was to commission All That Fall (1956) and Embers (1959), its main source. Half a century later, as the Columbia Encyclopedia reminds us, radio is still primarily an information medium, a conductor of messages, whether news flashes, announcements of events, weather reports, and today the ubiquitous "sigalerts" that advise the driver about freeway conditions and traffic accidents even as they are taking place.
All the more reason, then, for the radio artist--and Beckett is surely one of the finest --to turn this information function, this relaying of messages from A to B, inside out. "Communication," writes Michel Serres, "is only possible between two persons used to the same forms, trained to code and decode a meaning by using the same key." But communication is never without disruption: "in spoken languages: stammerings, mispronunciations, regional accents, dysphonias, and cacophonies . . . . In the technical means of communication: background noise, jamming, static, cut-offs, heteresis, various interruptions. If static is accidental, background noise is essential to communication" (SER 66). "To communicate orally" is thus "to lose meaning in noise." Only at the level of mathematical abstraction, when form (e.g., the symbol x or the addition sign + ) is distinguished from its empirical realizations, is dialogue entirely "successful." But "to exclude the empirical is to exclude differentiation, the plurality of others that mask the same" (SER 69), and it is those "others"--the interference and noise that everywhere blocks the straightforward A > B model of transmission-- that really matter in the communication paradigms that we actually use. "The transmission of communication," writes Serres, "is chronic transformation. . . . the empirical is strictly essential and accidental noise" (SER 70).
The notion of "noise" as "the empirical portion of the message" is by no means confined to radio, but we see it heightened in this medium where everything depends upon sound, primarily the sound of the human voice as communicator. Martin Esslin, who worked closely with Beckett on his BBC productions and has written extensively on the radio plays, argues that "radio is an intensely visual medium. . . . Information that reaches [the listener] through other senses is instantly converted into visual terms. And aural experiences, which include the immense richness of language as well as musical and natural sound, are the most effective means of triggering visual images." This may be true of the more mimetic variants of radio drama--Beckett's first radio play All That Fall is a case in point-- but what happens when, as Klaus Schoening points out in a discussion of the new acoustic art, words are combined with "nontextual language, nonverbal articulations, quotation, original sound [i.e.,ambient sound], environmental noises, acoustic objects trouvé, musical tones, [and] electronic technology"? What do we visualize then?
Beckett's radio experiments did not, of course, go as far as, say, John Cage's Roaratorio (one of Schoening's key exhibits) in undermining the conventional linguistic base, but he was surely aware that if the transmission of information is one pole of the radio experience, soundscape is the other. Indeed, as Don Druker puts it in a discussion of radio, "it is necessary to consider sound itself as the raw material for analysis." One must, for that matter, listen to radio more intensively than one does in the theater, where there is always something to look at as well. On the other hand, radio text also differs appreciably from the print media. When reading, one has the luxury of stopping to reconsider this or that point on a previous page, or one skims a given passage and moves ahead. Radio is much more coercively temporal; the sounds succeed each other, and the listener is challenged to take them in, one by one, and construct their relationships. Even when, as is usually the case, the radio piece is heard on tape or compact disc, so that one is free to fast forward and reverse, the listener remains deprived of the visual stimulus taken for granted by the theater goer or television viewer.
Even more important: because radio is essentially an information medium with what appears to be a linear structure, the listener feels compelled to pay close attention with the expectation of "finding out" something. But what does Beckett's radio audience find out? Here the theme of disembodiment put forward in my second epigraph becomes important. If radio (or the phonograph) has the capacity to bring voice into someone else's public or private space, the disembodiment of that voice, Beckett was quite aware, is a signifier of absence, of not being there, indeed of "death." Then, too, voice alone--or at least voice between puberty and extreme old age or serious illness-- cannot define its owner's stage of life or status as can the visual image of a human body.
As a dramatic medium, radio is at its best when it takes this indeterminacy and absence into account. After All That Fall, whose characters are still represented as "real" people in a "real" Irish country setting, Beckett's radio art becomes more abstract and mediumistic, engaging in a dialectic of disclosure and obstacle, information and noise, in which the soundscape -- which includes silence-- provides conflicting, and hence tantalizing, testimony. In what follows I want to consider how this dialectic works in what I take to be, in Hugh Kenner's words, "the most original use to which Beckett has put radio, and one is tempted to say as original and moving a use of any to which radio has been put." The play is Embers, written for the BBC and first broadcast on 24 June 1959.
Beckett commentators generally speak of Embers as a "skullscape" or "soulscape." "The universe which the radio audience is confronted with," declared Clas Zilliacus in the first extended discussion of the piece, "is a totally subjective one: it is one man's world. The interplay between Henry and other characters takes place in Henry's mind" (CL 82). The same point is made by Martin Esslin:
The background--a background of sound, the sea, Henry's boots on the shingle--is still real, but the voices are all internal: Henry's internal monologue as he tries unsuccessfully to conjure up his dead father's presence, and later the voices of his wife and daughter and her instructors, which materialize in his memory. (BSG 368).
And in a survey of Beckett's radio and television plays for the recent Cambridge Companion to Beckett, Jonathan Kalb remarks that "Embers has no surface narrative other than that of a haunted man talking about talking to himself, telling stories that he never finishes, and sometimes experiencing (along with us) the ghostly people and things in his story." Kalb gives the following precis:
Henry, who may or may not be walking by the sea with his daughter Addie nearby, addresses his dead father, who may or may not have committed suicide in the sea. The father fails to respond . . . and Henry tells a story about a man named Bolton (perhaps a father-surrogate) who has called for his doctor Holloway one winter night, for obscure reasons that may have to do with wanting to die. Henry then speaks to a woman, also apparently dead, named Ada, his former companion and mother of Addie, who speaks sympathetically but distractedly back to him. For most of the remainder of the action Ada and Henry reminisce about old times, some of which are dramatized as auditory flashbacks involving other characters. Henry complains several times of not being able to rid himself of the sound of the sea, and Ada suggests that he consult Holloway about both that and his incessant talking to himself. When Ada no longer answers him, Henry tries unsuccessfully to command the sound effects again, returns briefly to the Bolton story and then ends by seeming to make a note in his diary: 'Nothing all day nothing." (JKCC, 129-30).
This account of Embers as memory play taking place inside Henry's mind is accurate enough in its broad outlines, but it seems to ignore the use of radio as medium, even though Beckett himself, in a much cited statement about his first radio play All That Fall, insisted that the distinction between media had to be honored:
All That Fall is a specifically radio play, or rather radio text, for voices, not bodies. I have already refused to have it "staged" and I cannot think of it in such terms. A perfectly straight reading before an audience seems to me just barely legitimate, though even on this score I have my doubts. But I am absolutely opposed to any form of adaptation with a view to its conversion into "theatre." It is no more theatre than End-Game is radio and to "act" it is to kill it. Even the reduced visual dimension it will receive from the simplest and most static of readings . . . will be destructive of whatever quality it may have and which depends on the whole thing's coming out of the dark.
"To 'act' it is to kill it": "radio text," Beckett here reminds us, is par excellence an art that depends on sound alone and hence cannot be converted to the stage. Furthermore, the sound in question is not just that of the human voice but includes a complex network of nonverbal elements, musical or otherwise. It makes little sense, then, to complain, as does John Pilling, that Beckett should have included the voice of Henry's father, along with Ada's and Addie's voices, in the play:
The puzzling thing is that Henry's control over voices does not extend to the most crucial figure of all, his father. . . . The failure to incorporate into the physical existence of the play its most important figure is not so much a failure of conception--though it might have served to link Henry's life to his story of Bolton-- as of tact. There seems to be no good reason for the omission.
But there is a very good reason for the omission, which is that, unlike the theater, radio makes it possible to represent characters by means of metonymic sound images: The ghost of Henry's father is indeed "heard" throughout the play: not only when his son acts the role of medium, imitating such parental exhortations as "Are you coming for a dip?", but also in the recurrent "Please! PLEASE!" that Bolton addresses to Holloway, and, most important, in the voice of the sea itself. Indeed, Henry's is not quite an interior monologue like Malone's or the Unnamable's, for it moves easily in and out of the the narrator's specific consciousness and depends heavily on the elaborate patterning of phrasal, verbal, and phonemic repetition.
Henry's first halting words in Embers are "On," "Stop," and "Down," each one spoken twice, the second time more emphatically, as the exclamation points indicate. The predominant vowel sound is a long open "o" competing with the sound of the sea: [Sea, still faint, audible throughout what follows whenever pause indicated.]" The "o" sound now modulates into the longer unit "Who is beside me now?" and after the response "[Pause.] An old man, blind and foolish. [Pause.] My father, back from the dead, to be with me. [Pause.] As if he hadn't died. [Pause]," we hear the words, "No, he doesn't answer me." "No," which will soon become one of the key words in the Bolton narrative ("no, hangings," "no light," "no, standing," "no sound," and then the variant "not a sound," (which will be Henry's final words in the play), is, of course a reversal of the opening "On." From "On to "No": this is the trajectory of Henry's speech, his Omega (note that both "Bolton" and "Holloway" contain long "o"s as well) in conflict with the Alpha of his wife's name "Ada," and the diminutive of Ada in the child's name "Addie." The narrator Henry, for that matter, whose family name we never know, is so to speak caught phonemically between Alpha and Omega. When one hears Ada speak lines like "Laugh, Henry do that for me" (E 97), the /e/ and /I/ phonemes stand out as distinct from the other names.
But it is not quite accurate to say, as Pilling does, that Henry has "control" over the voices in the play. For the dominant voice is not Henry's but the voice of the sea. It is that voice that punctuates each of Henry's questions about his father--"Can he hear me? [Pause.] Yes, he must hear me. [Pause.] To answer me [Pause.] No, he doesn't answer me [Pause] Just be with me"--and that is presented as a character in its own right in the following strange speech:
That sound you hear is the sea. [Pause. Louder.] I say that sound you hear is the sea, we are sitting on the strand. [Pause.] I mention it because the sound is so strange, so unlike the sound of the sea, that if you didn't see what it was you wouldn't know what it was. [Pause.] (E 93)
The "you" here can be taken to be the dead father, with whom Henry is sitting on the strand. But if so, it makes little sense since, as we soon learn, the father lived at the sea's edge all his life and presumably would know how the sea sounds. Henry's information thus functions ironically, or even metalinguistically: on the one hand, it shows the narrator having a brief moment of power over the father whose death haunts him; on the other, we can read the speech as an aside to the audience, especially in connection with the next sentence: "if you didn't see what it was you wouldn't know what it was"--an absurd statement given that of course the radio audience cannot "see" the "sea" (note the pun); nor can it, as Henry puts it a few lines further, "Listen to the light."
Such self-consciousness about the use of the medium and the constructedness of the narrative is the "noise" Beckett introduces into the channel. We are warned that the sea sound effects are not accurate and exhorted to "listen to the light." The "story" is thus immediately established as unreal in the sense of unverifiable. If Embers were staged or televised, the seashore setting would be so designated, whether more or less abstractly. But when sound is our only guide and the narrator tells us that the sound we hear is "unlike the sound of the sea," we cannot be sure where we are. It follows that we cannot be wholly involved in Henry's private mental drama. The sea, we are told a little bit further along, is the scene of his father's probable suicide, "the evening bathe you took once too often." But the next sentence tells us that "We never found your body, you know, that held up probate an unconscionable time, they said there was nothing to prove you hadn't run away from us all and alive and well under a false name in the Argentine for example, that grieved mother greatly. [Pause]" (E 94). Indeed, Henry's obsession is not with the sea as such but only with its sound, which he cannot escape, even when he tries to "drown it out" by telling himself endless stories. "I often went to Switzerland to get away from the cursed thing," he recalls, "and never stopped all the time I was there." (E 94).
Ada cannot understand why Henry finds the sea's sound so oppressive. "It's only on the surface, you know," she tells Henry, as if this would comfort him. "Underneath all is as quiet as a grave. Not a sound. All, day, all night, not a sound. [Pause]." And when Henry explains that he now walks around with a gramophone so as to drown out the sea, Ada responds common-sensically, "There is no sense in that. [Pause]. There is no sense in trying to drown it" (E101). Again, the ironies here are multiple. The silence of the sea below the surface, "quiet as a grave," cannot comfort Henry who knows that the sea is a grave--his father's. And the use of gramophone or voice or rival sounds to "drown it," has no chance against the sea's own drowning power--power brought home to the listener by every sea-sound-filled pause. Yet, as Henry says, "It's not so bad when you get out on it. (E 101). Again, an ambiguous wish: it might not be so bad to "get out on it" because one would no longer be alive to feel the pain it evokes.
No sooner have the acoustics of water been established than Beckett
introduces its opposite, fire, and the outdoors gives way to the indoors, as Henry tells the story--a story "never finished . . . I never finished anything, everything always went on for ever"-- of "an old fellow called Bolton." It begins as follows:
Bolton [Pause. Louder] Bolton! [Pause.] There before the fire. [Pause.] Before the fire with all the shutters . . . no, hangings, hangings, all the hangings drawn and the light, no light, only the light of the fire, sitting there in the . . . no, standing, standing, there on the hearth-rug in the dark before the fire in his old red dressing-gown and no sound in the house of any kind, only the sound of the fire. [Pause.] Standing there in his old red dressing-gown might go on fire any minute like when he was a child, no, that was his pyjamas, standing there waiting in the dark, no light, only the light of the fire, and no sound of any kind, only the fire, an old man in great trouble. [Pause.] (E 95, ellipses are Beckett's)
The dominant feature here is the degree of verbal and phrasal repetition: the word "fire" appears eight times in combination with "light" and "sound," "only" and "no," as in "no light, only the light of the fire," "no sound of any kind, only the fire," and punctuated by the use of "no" as correction: "all the shutters . . . no, hangings," "sitting there in the . . . no, standing." "waiting in the dark, no light." And "pause" also acts as a kind of "correction," for each pause is filled with the sea voice so that "no sound," and "not a sound" are not accurate descriptors.
Beckett's dense network of repetition places a curious burden on the sparsely used visual images in the passage. So abstract is the vocabulary, that when we are suddenly introduced to the figure "on the hearth-rug in the dark before the fire in his old red dressing-gown," we hang on to the bright color image as a kind of signpost in the midst of shadow. Red is also the color of the fire, and then the embers, and phonemically both "red" and "embers" chime with the "Henry," who is not overtly present at the scene in question.
But the power of visualization, activated momentarily in Henry's monologue, is repeatedly countered by rhythm, in this case the broken phrasal rhythm of "white world, great trouble, not a sound, only the embers, sound of dying, dying glow, Holloway, Bolton, Bolton, Holloway, old men, great trouble, white world, not a sound" (E 95). The sound structure here, as in many of Beckett's later works, is phrasal and linear, with two primary stresses per line:
nót a soúnd
ónly the émbers
soúnd of dying
followed by the chiastic line, "Hóllowày, Bólton || Bólton, Hóllowày," and then the same refrain with the lines in slightly different order:
nót a soúnd
The effect of these elaborately stylized schema is again to occlude the information channel with noise. The message from sender to receiver, which radio, practically speaking, is designed to foreground, becomes progressively less well understood.
For what is the Bolton story about and how does it relate to the death by suicide of Henry's father? John Pilling has complained that Embers "has a structural slackness deriving from the two main topics [the father-son plot and the Bolton-Holloway plot] failing to blend" (PIL 98); Bolton, Pilling posits, is "simply an image in the imagination" (PIL100), a reading that accords with Zilliacus's supposition that Bolton is somehow Henry's alter ego or Donald Wicher's that he is "the fictive projection of the self." But such thematic readings slight the piece's use of sound and silence, speech and pause. Just as outside, there is no way of "drowning" the sound of the sea, inside, the only sound is the sound of the fire and then its embers. However often Henry tells himself that there is "not a sound," whether on the shingle along the beach or in Bolton's sitting-room, in both cases, sound is steady and unstoppable.
The only way of interrupting the continuity of water and fire sounds, it seems, is to introduce another sound, one that is finite (and hence controllable) rather than continuous. Thus Henry summons "Hooves!" in the opening sequence and although the hooves "die rapidly away," he longs for a regular metrical rhythm, a beat that could "mark time. . . . a ten-ton mammoth back from the dead, shoe it with steel and have it tramp the world down! Listen to it!" (E 93). The parallel in the Bolton story is the drip:
Holloway, Bolton, Bolton, Holloway, old men, great trouble, white world, not a sound, [Pause.] Listen to it! [Pause.] Close your eyes and listen to it, what would you think it was? [Pause. Vehement.] A drip! A drip! [Sound of drip, rapidly amplified, suddenly cut off.] Again! [Drip again. Amplifications begins.] No! [Drip cut off. Pause.] Father! [Pause. Agitated.] Stories, stories, years and years of stories . . . . (E 95).
Again we have the exhortation "Listen to it!" and the auditory image of a sound that, unlike the sound of the ocean, which is present here again in the repeated pauses, can be identified, timed for frequency, and stopped. It is when the drip is finally "cut off" that Henry, supposedly telling a story unconnected to his family drama, cries out "Father!" So much for the unrelatedness of the two narratives.
Indeed, the verbal, imagistic, and acoustic symbiosis of the two "plots" is worked out with musical precision: they cross in the central sequence of the play which is Henry's dialogue with Ada, and, by extension, with Addie. Jonathan Kalb, in the comment cited above, says Henry and Ada "reminisce about old times," but this hardly gives the reader a sense of the hopelessness and futility that characterizes their exchanges or the epiphany toward which their desultory conversation moves.
Ada's vocal entrance follows the snatch of dialogue with Addie, whose presence, as Henry recalls it, evidently interfered with his need need to "talk," to tell himself stories. Walking in the fields holding his child's hand in what sounds like a parodic version of such Wordsworth poems as "We are Seven," Henry says, "Run along now, Addie, and look at the lambs." But when she says "No papa," he turns "Violent": "Go on with you when you're told and look at the lambs!" which triggers Addie's "loud wail" (E 96). Addie's world, a pastoral world of fields, lambs, and the child Jesus, is one the sea-dweller Henry cannot abide. And it is in this context that Ada is remembered:
Ada, too, conversation with her, that was something, that's what hell will be like, small chat to the babbling of Lethe about the good old days when we wished we were dead. [Pause.] Price of margarine fifty years ago. [Pause] And now. [Pause. With solemn indignation.] Price of blueband now! [Pause.] Father! [Pause]
Another water sound-- the "small chat to the babbling of Lethe"--that despite its promise to help the narrator forget, cannot counter the ongoing sound of the sea. Ada and Addie live in the mundane, everyday world where the price of margarine or blueband is the topic of discussion--a world that was, for a short time, Henry's own, as his rhyme "Daddy! Addie" (E 100) suggests. All the odder, then, that when Ada makes her entrance, there is, for once, no sound. and further "[No sound as she sits.]" For the radio listener she is simply there; she may indeed have been there all along.
The Henry-Ada sequence is not simply flashback, for there are many time periods covered: their first love making in the "hole" "Where we did it at last for the first time" (E 101), a moment long ago (is that the same moment?) when, as Ada recalls, "It was rough, the spray came flying over us. [Pause.] Strange it should have been rough then [Pause.] And calm now" (E 98), Henry and Ada's parental dealings with their young daughter who takes music and riding lessons, a somewhat older Ada given to nagging-- "Did you put on your jaegers, Henry?"(E 97); "Don't wet your good boots" (E 99)-- and then to warning Henry that "You will be quite alone with your voice, there will be no other voice in the world but yours" (E 102). And finally what is evidently the present moment in which Henry tells Ada, "I was trying to be with my father," and she says sardonically, "No difficulty about that." To which Henry responds, "I mean I was trying to get him to be with me. [Pause.] You seem a little cruder than usual today, Ada" (E102).
But so fluid are the shifts from one time frame to another that there is no use in trying to establish a meaningful temporal sequence. When Henry says, in what seems to be the present, "let us get up and go," Ada responds, "Go? Where? And Addie? She would be very distressed if she came and found you had gone without her" (E 98). But when, a few minutes later, Henry asks Ada "What age is [Addie] now?" it is Ada who demurs, "I have lost count of time" (E 101). When Henry counters, "Twelve? Thirteen? [Pause.] Fourteen?", the audience is even more confused, for Henry and Ada seem to be talking of a time in the distant past. Moreover, the one specific time signal given throws us off even further:
ADA: [Twenty years earlier, imploring.] Don't! Don't!
HENRY: [Ditto. urgent.] Darling!
ADA: [Ditto, more feebly.] Don't!
HENRY: [Ditto, exultantly.] Darling! (E 100)
If this prototypical "young love" scene took place twenty years before the present of the play, how could Addie now be twelve or thirteen? Beckett everywhere underscores the foolishness of such questions. And the radio medium makes it possible to shift ground at a moment's notice and to collapse time. Past and present are often indistiguishable, even as sound distinctions are rigidly maintained: sea-sound versus "hooves" in the first sequence, "drip" in the second, and finally the dashing together of stones in the third. When Ada insists that "there's nothing wrong with it [the sound of the sea], it's a lovely peaceful gentle soothing sound," Henry goes wild:
Thuds, I want thuds! Like this! [He fumbles in the shingle, catches up two big stones and starts dashing them together.] Stone! [Clash.] Stone! [Clash. 'Stone!' and clash amplified, cut off. Pause He throws one stone away. Sound of its fall.] That's life [He throws the other stone away. Sound of its fall.] Not this. . . [Pause] . . . sucking!" (E 100, ellipses Beckett's).
The sound of stone falling stops, whereas the sea's "sucking" continues. "Sucking," with its harsh spirant and voiceless stop, now extracts Ada's monologue which is, from the point of view of plot, the key to the play, providing, as it does, the crucial information Henry has sought all along. The climactic scene in question begins with Henry's challenge: "I can't remember if he [Father] met you," and Ada's immediate reply, "You know he met me" (E 102). Henry demurs: "No, Ada, I don't know, I'm sorry. I have forgotten almost everything connected with you." Now comes the following dialogue:
ADA: You weren't there. Just your mother and sister. I had called to fetch you, as arranged. We were to go bathing together. [Pause.]
HENRY: [Irritably.] Drive on, drive on! Why do people always stop in the middle of what they are saying?
ADA: None of them knew where you were. Your bed had not been slept in. They were all shouting at one another. Your sister said she would throw herself off the cliff. Your father got up and went out, slamming the door. I left soon afterwards and passed him on the road. He did not see me. He was sitting on a rock looking out to sea. I never forgot his posture. And yet it was a common one. You used to have it sometimes. Perhaps just the stillness, as if he had been turned to stone. I could never make it out.
HENRY: Keep on! keep on! [Imploringly.] Keep it going, Ada, every syllable is a second gained. (E 102)
Ada cannot remember anything else but she insists that "there are attitudes remain in one's mind for reasons that are clear" (E 103) and that she cannot forget "the great stillness of the whole body, as if all the breath had left it" (E 103). It remains for Henry to finish Ada's story for her: she sees, or so Henry imagines it, the old man sitting on the rock but keeps on toward the tram stop, gets on the next tram into town but feels "uneasy," and gets off again. She retraces her steps: "Very unhappy and uneasy, hangs round a bit, not a soul about, cold wind coming in off sea, goes back down path and takes tram home" (E103).
The critics have made very little of this whole sequence. "When Ada leaves Henry's mind," writes Cohn, "he tries to weave a story about her encounter with his father, but Ada 'takes tram home,' and Henry drops her" (RCJP 84). But then why is this the only moment in the play when Henry urges Ada to "drive on!," "keep on!"? That "Every syllable is a second gained"? Note that for the first time it is revealed that Ada was the last person to have seen Henry's father alive. It is she who witnessed the scene at Henry's house when "they were all shouting at one another. Your sister said she would throw herself off the cliff." She who knows that Henry's "bed had not been slept in." And it is after the scene she witnesses--"your father got up and went out, slamming the door"-- that she sees his figure "turned to stone" on the rock overlooking the sea." There is something so wrong with this picture that, having boarded her tram home, she gets off again and returns to the scene of the crime. But now there is "not a soul about."
This is the "message" Ada relays to Henry but what does it mean? Evidently father and son had had a quarrel-- "Your bed had not been slept in"--evidently something terrible has happened, but what? What would make the sister threaten to throw herself off a cliff? Why is everyone shouting? Why does the father go out, slamming the door? What drives him to drown himself? Why is the body, in a detail perfectly suited to radio, "never found"? Henry evidently knows some or all of these things, which is why he cannot drown out the voice of the sea. When Ada retells her tale, a tale she herself doesn't understand, his sense of guilt reaches fever pitch. If Ada could only remember more! "Every syllable is a second gained."
The Bolton story, far from being unrelated, provides the clue. Bolton has summoned Dr. Holloway, an old family friend, to help him in some desperate venture. Holloway finally offers to give his old friend a shot, but Bolton wants something else that Holloway won't give him: "We've had this before, Bolton, don't ask me to go through it again" (104). Does Bolton want Holloway to perform euthanasia? Or perhaps, given Ada's reference to Henry's sister's threat, an abortion? Or some other act of mercy? There is no way of knowing what Bolton's "Please! PLEASE!" refers to except that it is evidently something Holloway might dispense from his little black bag. The turning point, in any case, comes after the third "Please, Holloway!":
Candle shaking and guttering all over the place, lower now, old arm tired, takes it in the other hand and holds it high again, that's it, that was always it, night, and the embers cold, and the glim shaking in your old fist, saying, "Please! Please! [Pause.] Begging. [Pause.] Of the poor. [Pause.] Ada! [Pause.] Father! [Pause.] Christ! [Pause!.] (E 104)
"Your old fist": with the sudden and startling shift from third to second person, the text suddenly opens up. For who is Bolton but the father now immediately invoked in the sequence "Ada!," "Father!," "Christ!," each appelation punctuated by a pause bearing the sound of the sea? Far from being a projection of Henry's imagination, or Henry's alter ego, Bolton stands in for the father who, having failed in his unspecified and final plea to Holloway ("Please! PLEASE!"), takes his own life. And it is Henry who, for reasons never made wholly clear, cannot stop feeling he is to blame. No removal to Switzerland, no memories of "normal" family life, no retelling of Ada's uncomprehending story of what happened the fatal day of his father's death, no invocation of horses hooves' marking time, of water dripping, of stones struck together with a loud grinding sound, can drown out the sea's endless sounding.
What is perhaps the key word linking the two narratives in Embers is the word "washout," which appears in Henry's opening monologue. He has just gone over the Bolton-Holloway story for the first time and has recounted Holloway's refusal to do what Bolton wants: "ghastly scene, wishes to God he hadn't come, no good, fire out, bitter cold, great trouble, white world, not a sound, no good. [Pause.]" At this point, "No good" is repeated, now referring back to Henry himself:
No good. [Pause.] Can't do it. [Pause.] Listen to it! [Pause]. Father! [Pause.] You wouldn't know me now, you'd be sorry you ever had me, but you were that already a washout that's the last I heard from you, a washout. [Pause. Imitating father's voice.]
'Are you coming for a dip?' 'No.' 'Come on, come on.' 'No.' Glare, stump to door, turn, glare. 'A washout that's all you are, a washout!' [Violent slam of door. Pause.] Again! [Slam. Pause.] Slam life shut like that! [Pause.] Washout. [Pause.] Wish to Christ she had. (E 96)
The terrible irony here is that if Henry is figuratively a "washout," his father is literally one. But "washout" also refers to Henry's own death wish, his wish never to have been born coupled with his wish that he himself had never become Addie's father: "horrid little creature, wish to God we'd never had her" (E 96). An important intertext here is Beckett's late prose composition Company, specifically the following childhood memory:
You stand at the tip of the high board. High above the sea. In it your father's upturned face. Upturned to you. You look down to the loved trusted face. He calls you to jump. He calls, be a brave boy. The red round face. The thick moustahce. The greying hair. The swell sways it under and sways it up again. The far call again. Be a brave boy. Many eyes upon you. From the water and from the bathing place.
The reference here, as James Knowlson notes in his biography, is to the "famous deep 'Gentlemen Only' Forty-Foot" into which Bill Beckett, a superb swimmer, enjoyed diving from the high rocks at Sandycove when his son Sam was small (JKDF 32). In Beckett Writing Beckett, H. Porter Abbott rightly points out that the scene in question is of "an action that does not take place--no jump occurs":
Nor, and this is equally important, is it the record of a refusal to jump (nothing in the scene indicates such a construction either). It is the not-taking-place of a following a father's command. It is the not-taking-on of an identity ("Be a brave boy"). It is the nonoccurence of a baptism of total immersion with a father before the witness of many ("Many eyes upon you").
For Abbott, it is thus an example of Beckett's characteristic "Unwriting [of] The Father" (BWB 11), his intentional "sealing" of central autobiographical moments--his own Wordsworthian "spots of time"--"from meaningful, sequential narrative connection with any of the other spots in Company (BWB 17).
Abbott convincingly separates Beckett's "autography" from full-fledged autobiography on the one hand, fiction on the other. Company, one might add, works more like a lyric poem than any kind of narrative, and the diving incident cited above is best understood in relation to another scene just a few pages earlier in the text, in which the author's father sets off on a mountain hike so as to avoid "the pains and general unpleasantness of [his wife's] labour and delivery," the delivery being Beckett's own. The father's urge is to get away: "Hence the sandwiches which he relished at noon looking out to sea from the lee of a great rock on the first summit scaled" (C 13). The father who absents himself for the moment of his son's birth is not unlike the father of Embers, whose posture on a similar rock above the sea provides the death motif. And the son who cannot respond properly to the loved father's request to "Be a brave boy," and to "jump," is forever a "washout."
Knowlson records how devastated the twenty-seven-year old Beckett was when his father died in 1933. It happened during the worst period of Beckett's life--the inability to leave home or to find a viable form of writing, the heavy drinking, the terrible fights with his mother. But his father, who made few demands on his son, was "a great source of strength to him" (JKDF 164). As Beckett wrote his friend Tom MacGreevy:
Lovely walk this morning with Father, who grows old with a very graceful philosophy. Comparing bees and butterflies to elephants and parrots and speaking of indentures with the Leveller! Barging through hedges and over the walls with the help of my shoulder, blaspheming and stopping to rest under colour of admiring the view. I'll never have anyone like him. (cited in JKDF 165).
It was just a few months later that Bill Beckett collapsed with a heart attack: within a week he was dead. "I can't write about him," Beckett wrote MacGreevy, "I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him" (JKDF 166), and more than fifty years later, he told his biographer: "After my father's death I had trouble psychologically. The bad years were between when I had to crawl home in 1932 and after my father's death in 1933. I'll tell you how it was. I was walking down Dawson Street. And I felt I couldn't go on. It was a strange experience I can't really describe. I found I couldn't go on moving" (JKDF 167).
The acute sense of guilt that produced this paralysis is not surprising when we consider that, at the time of his death, Beckett père could not know that his son would ever emerge from the bad phase he was in, a phase that gave his mother so much pain. And it is the son's guilt about this situation which is the subject of Embers. The sea-sound is forever linked to the dying embers, white world, and "no sound" that greets Bolton's "Please! PLEASE!" Beckett has written a searing play about what Dante called the "great refusal."
The question remains: what did Beckett gain by presenting this autobiographical drama of filial guilt as a radio play? If, as we have seen, Embers is closely allied to such of Beckett's later fictions as Company, which shares many of its actual images and incidents (and a similar case could be made for Krapp's Last Tape and The Unnamable, both of them written just a few years before Embers), why was Beckett so adamant in refusing to let his plays "for voices, not bodies," be staged or so much as read in front of a live audience? Why his insistence that "to 'act' it is to kill it"?
The answer cannot be that radio gave Beckett the best possible vehicle for "skullscape" or "soulscape," for certainly Company and Krapp's Last Tape are soulscapes too. Nor is it enough to say, as Beckett does of his radio plays, that the "whole thing com[es] out of the dark." Rather, I would like to suggest that the "radio-activity" of Embers, as of Words and Music, Cascando, and Rough for Radio I and II which followed in its wake, is that its sounding of disembodied voices makes it the perfect vehicle for the dance of death that is its subject. The dialectic of sea-sound / no sound, within which the sound of hooves, of a water drip, of stones grinding against one another cannot "drown" the continuity of the sea without and the fire within, is the vocal equivalent of a world in which all the characters--Ada, Addie, Henry's father, Bolton, Holloway, and Henry himself--are revenants, ghostly presences. When Ada tells Henry he "ought to see Holloway," she adds, "he's alive still, isn't he?" (E 100). But alive at which of the many discrepant times presented in this play? The Holloway we meet in Henry's monologue is an old man who says to the equally old Bolton, "for the love of God, Bolton, do you want to finish me?" (E 104). As for Henry himself, his living testimony exists, as it were, in absentia: his self, as Charles Grivel puts it in the passage that gives me my epigraph, lives without him.
At the same time-- and this is the paradox--Embers is an exciting whodunnit. Inevitably, the audience tries to construct the plot, doled out in dribs and drabs of information. Why is Henry so obsessed with his father? How did the father feel about Ada? What, if any, role did she play in his death? What does Bolton want from Holloway and why won't Holloway give it to him? And so on. Normally and conventionally, radio is the purveyor of messages: who killed whom and why? when and where did it happen? what are the latest police findings? What does the coroner's report say? But in Embers, there are no findings, no announcement, no "late bulletin." Indeed, it is these features of radio discourse that Beckett parodies: the radio audience's demand for fact is consistently undercut by verbal and phrasal repetition, by unanchored visual image (e.g., red dressinggown, blue eye), and by rhetorical and sonic excess.
So stylized is the play's language, with its invocation of seemingly unrelated sounds and sights, that we all but miss the moment when disclosure actually occurs, when the noise dies down for an instant, allowing a bit of the "message" to come through. That moment occurs when Ada recounts her visit to the house where "None of them knew where you were. Your bed had not been slept in." Her speech is significantly framed by Henry's "Drive on, drive on! Why do people always stop in the middle of what they are saying?" and "Keep on, keep on! [Imploringly.] (E 102). When Ada stops, unable to remember anything else, Henry has to finish the story for her, a story that imperceptibly and inevitably modulates back into the Bolton narrative. And the narrator repeats the words, "Not a word, just the look, the old blue eye" (E 104).
But if there is "Not a word, just a look," the radio narrative is over. "Every syllable" is indeed "a second gained," for if there is really no sound, the listener must assume that the receiver isn't working, that there is either failure in the particular channel of transmission or a mechanical failure that has somehow turned off the set. On radio, in other words, the only way to simulate silence is via sound. And it is this characteristic of the medium Beckett must have had in mind when he refused to allow his radio plays to be visualized in any form.
In a recent internet debate of the John Cage Discussion Group, participants were discussing how to perform Cage's famous "silent" piece of 1952 called 4' 33". The title refers to the four minutes and thirty-three second length of the performance, designed for any instrument or combination of instruments, which are, in fact, not played during the "silent" performance. Daniel Farris suggests:
When one records silence, one must make a number of decisions. As when recording sound, one must decide whether or not to mic it up close or at a distance. The purpose of close mic placement is to reduce the amount of intrusion caused by nearby instruments and ambient sound and not necessarily to capture the most accurate representation of the performance. The purpose of distance mic placement is to capture the complete sonic environment both completely and accurately. Both techniques are useful and the decision about which to use is a subjective but important one. . . . Given the average Western audience's predisposition toward movement and respiration (and occasionally more at a hot gig), if an audience were present, one would need to actually deploy microphones and roll tape. We could call this 'the live version.'
Here Farris reminds us that silence is never in fact, silent: to record it for radio or audiotape therefore presents special problems. On stage or in film, "silence" is represented by having some sort of visual movement (as in Beckett's own Film) during which nothing is "said." But on radio, there is no such option and so "silence" must be sounded as it is in Embers. The final sentence in the play, "Not a sound," thus denies its own assertion in ways that underscore the piece's overarching sense of emptiness. For Henry can't even have the silence he longs for and anticipates; there will always be another "syllable," but not the one he is looking for. Radio would seem to be a unique medium to achieve this particular pathos.
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1 Charles Grivel, "The Phonograph's Horned Mouth," in Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, ed. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1992), p. 35.
2 See Raymond Kuhn, The Media in France (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 87-89; James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996), pp. 305-08. Subsequently cited in the text as JKDF.
3 Michel Serres, "Platonic Dialogue" (1968), in Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, ed. Josué V. Harari and David F. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1992), p. 65. Subsequently cited in the text as SER.
4 Martin Esslin, "Samuel Beckett and the Art of Radio," Mediations: Essays on Brecht, Beckett and the Media (New York: Grove Press, 1982): 125-54; rpt. in On Beckett: Essays and Criticism, ed. S. E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 1986), p. 366. The collection is s subsequently cited as BSG. In a related essay, "The Mind as Stage--Radio Drama" (Mediations, pp. 171-187), Esslin relates "blind" radio to the silent cinema but observes that the analogy breaks down because radio "can evoke the visual element by suggestion alone" (p. 172).
5 Klaus Schöning," The Contours of Acoustic Art," in Theatre Journal, 43, no. 3 ((October 1991): Special Issue, Radio Drama, ed. Everett Frost, p. 312. Schoening's is one of the best
6 treatments I have seen on the larger issues involved in radio art.
7 Don Druker, "Listening to the Radio," Theatre Journal, 43: p. 334.
8 Hugh Kenner, A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1973), p. 169..
9 For discussions of the production itself, see Clas Zilliacus, Beckett and Broadcasting: A Study of the Works of Samuel Beckett for and in Radio and Television, Acta Academiae Aboensis, Ser. A. Humaniora, Vol. 51. n. 2 (Abo: Abo Akademi, 1976), pp.76-98, subsequently cited as CZ; Jonathan Kalb, "The Mediated Quixote: The Radio and Television Plays, and Film," in The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, ed. John Pilling (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1994), pp. 124-44, subsequently cited as JKCC; Katharine Worth, "Beckett and the Radio Medium," in British Radio Drama, ed. John Drakakis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 202-08; Donald Wilcher, "'Out of the Dark': Beckett's Texts for Radio," in Beckett's Fictions and Later Drama: Texts for Company, ed. James Acheson and Kateryna Arthur (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), pp. 8-10, subsequently cited as DW.
10 The designation "skullscape" is Linda Ben Zvi's, "soulscape" is Ruby Cohn's, both in the recorded discussion that follows the production of Embers for the Beckett Festival of Radio Plays, recorded at the BBC Studios, London on January 1988. The director/producer for Embers was Everett Frost, the Associate Producer, Faith Wilding, the Project Originator Martha Fehsenfeld. In the BBC production, Barry McGovern played Henry, Billie Whitelaw played Ada, Michael Deacon was the Riding Master / Music Master, Tika Viker-Bloss was Addie, and Henry Strozier, the host for the production. National Public Radio broadcast the five-part series of radio plays on Beckett's birthday, April 13, 1989. The Beckett Festival cassettes are available from the Pacifica Radio Archive (818-506-1077).
11 For Cohn's analysis of Embers, see also her Just Play: Beckett's Theater (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 84-86. Embers, writes Cohn, "is a paradigm of most of Beckett's subsequent author-character combinations. Set in a human mind, spare of referential content, dramatic stories condense toward incantation" (p. 86).
12 Although even at this level, there are problems. Kalb says, for example, that Henry "may or may not be walking by the sea with his daughter Addie nearby," thus ignoring the complex time shifts: in the present of the play's opening, Addie has long been dead. Kalb also refers oddly to Ada as Henry's "companion" rather than, what she so evidently is, his wife, and the two, as I will suggest later, by no means merely "reminisce about old times."
13 Samuel Beckett, letter to Barney Rosset, his U.S. publisher (Grove Press), 27 August 1957, cited in CL as frontispiece; and in Everett C. Frost, "A 'Fresh Go' for the Skull: Directing All That Fall, Samuel Beckett's Play for Radio," in Directing Beckett, ed. Lois Oppenheim (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. 191.
14 John Pilling, Samuel Beckett (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 98. Subsequently cited as PIL.
15 Embers, in Samuel Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays (New York: Grove Press,1984), pp. 91-104, see p. 96. All subsequent references to Embers, cited as E, are to this edition. For an interesting discussion of mediumistic evocation in Embers in relation to Yeats's Words upon the Window-Pane, see Worth, "Beckett and the Radio Medium," pp. 196-208.
16 E 93. Although my reading here and throughout is based on the Becckett Festival recording in conjunction with the text, I use the text as score, since Beckett indicates what the quality of voice is meant to be. Such scoring has its problems; it is not quite true to the actual experience of hearing a work a single time (or even several times) on the air. Following Beckett's written text allows me to reread, reconsider, compare passages in nonlinear ways. But since presumably Beckett would have wanted us to study a given recording, not just listen to it once, the use of text as score, in conjunction with the recording, is not, I hope, a violation of his purpose.
17 See my "Between Verse and Prose: Beckett and the New Poetry," Critical Inquiry 9, no. 2 (December 1982): 415-34; rpt. BSG 191-206.
18 CZ 85. Zilliacus argues that the Henry-Bolton parallel is more convincing than the father-Bolton one, "because it leaves the play more coherent. . . . Henry's father, whether he committed suicide or not, found a way out: his story has been finished. Henry, like Bolton, has to go on: the Bolston story is doomed to remain unfinished because Henry himself is not finished." Cf. Ludovic Janvier, Pour Samuel Beckett (Paris, 1966), pp. 126, 129; John Fletcher and John Spurling, Beckett: A Study of his Plays (London, 1972), p. 97.
19 DW 10. Again, Ruby Cohn follows Hersh Zeifman's lead in taking the characters to be "embers of the Christian faith, with an implied equation between Henry-Bolton-victim Christ and father-Holloway-savior Christ"; see RCJP 85 and cf. Hersh Zeifman, "Religious Imagery in the Plays of Samuel Beckett," in Ruby Cohn, ed. Samuel Beckett (New York: McGraw Hill, 1975), p. 90.
20 Samuel Beckett, Company (New York: Grove Press, 1980), p. 18. Subsequently cited in the text as C.
21 H. Porter Abbott, Beckett Writing Beckett: The Author in the Autograph (Ithaca and London: Cornell University press, 1996), p. 17. Subsequently cited as BWB.
22 <Silence@bga.com>, 20 July 1997.