Practical aspects of theatre, radio and television

Audio-visual Beckett

Katharine J. Worth

The special involvement of the University of London with Beckett as a playwright of broadcast drama began in 1972 when the Department of Extra-Mural Studies organized a series of lectures on Beckett’s writings with the aim of bringing out his versatility in many forms and media. In arranging these lectures, I hoped to show what a peculiarly concrete writer he is by providing many concrete illustrations, but where the drama on screen and tape was concerned, this proved far from easy. The American made Film was simply not available for showing in this country; Eh Joe and the radio plays, tantalizingly to hand in the BBC archives, could not be borrowed for public showing. BBC staff were helpful, to the extent of lending the score of John Beckett’s music for Words and music, but they could not get round the fact that no system existed for hiring out archive material. (The accessibility of BBC and ITV archive material is of course a question of more general concern which is being pursued at present by the Consortium for Drama and Media in Higher Education.)

If we could not get recordings of the original productions, we had to find others or make our own: desperate for actual sounds, I did play to our audience some home-made recordings of the musical dialogue between the Opener, Voice and Music in Cascando and of sequences from Words and music. They were better than nothing, but their chief use was to bring home the intricacy of the operation and the need for professional expertise at every point. A view of some taped student performances in Eh Joe had already demonstrated the need not just for professionals but for virtuosi in such roles: what amateur could be expected to hold the attention for twenty or so minutes by the use of his face alone, to convey by the voice alone so subtle a presence as is created out of the air in that play?

With an undergraduate course on Beckett’s drama at hand and concrete illustrations still more badly needed, I turned for help to the University of London Audio-visual Centre and the Director, Michael Clarke, rose splendidly to the challenge. It was fortunate indeed for Beckett studies in London and elsewhere that he was ready to support a venture that fell so far outside the normal limits of university audio-visual productions. Fortunate too that one of the staff at the Centre, David Clark, was enthusiastic about the idea of directing, first the television play Eh Joe, and then the radio plays, Words and music and Embers, which are the fruit of our collaboration so far. A great stroke of fortune was the finding of professional actors of the calibre of Patrick Magee and Elvi Hale who were sympathetic to the notion of recording the plays as teaching material, with the stringencies necessarily involved, notably very limited rehearsal time. His face and her voice came together with haunting effect in Eh Joe; a face that in the end became the mask of a tragic clown, a voice level and matter of fact and yet mysteriously remote, seeming to call him to attention out of some unknown dark. To hold a seminar on the play immediately after students had seen it was to get the best possible proof of the value of such teaching material. There was an urgency in the discussion and a quality of understanding which clearly sprang from the fact that the audience had been exposed to something like the ordeal which is the plays subject; made to sit still for an unwontedly long stretch in dimness and silence, concentrating on one object, listening, sometimes straining to hear the insidious voice. All that is part of the design. Criticism must be incomplete that does not contain a sense of physical involvement, of the ‘ordeal’ that Beckett always seeks to draw his audience into.

So with the radio plays. It is strange to find them so often discussed without reference to the sound they make, to the nature of the music and its effect in the dramatic whole: more curiosity about this would be expected even when recordings have not been available. Words and music, for instance, ends by turning into a kind of chamber opera, with the precarious harmony achieved between Words and Music its climactic moment. How seriously we have to take that harmony, growing as it does out of an aggressively mock-serious context is the crucial question of the play that it is hard if not impossible to answer from the text alone. For how can we tell without hearing it what the music is doing to colour and change the atmosphere, undermine or lift up the words, refuse or give us that experience beyond words which Croak, producer of both words and music, is so desperately trying for?

It is the composer who creates the personality of Music. John Beckett’s in the original production was distinctively austere, even monastic, a sharp contrast throughout to the lush flamboyancy of Words. That music was not available, however; John Beckett had withdrawn it by then; so, as well as actors and musicians, a composer had to be found. Beckett himself suggested that I should approach Humphrey Searle, who happily accepted the commission and did in effect create a new text by making of Music a character as distinctive as John Beckett’s but totally different. This was an altogether more histrionic personality, sharing the weakness of Words for mocking parody; both had to struggle hard to break through to the true voice of feeling. It was Words who got there first by stumbling on to the theme of old age; then Music picked up that motif—in a fine wintry sequence—and from there on led the way confidently into the lyrical cadences which released Words from clichés and abstractions and brought them both to a close where the poetry and seriousness were not in doubt. It must add to the interest of the comparison with the original BBC production that Patrick Magee played Words in both. The kind of close attention to minutiae involved in listening to the adjustments one voice makes to different styles of music is what the radio plays call for but seldom receive, hardly can do, when recordings are so rare.

The play we have most recently recorded, Embers, though without music, (Addie’s effort at the piano hardly counts as such!), raised sound problems no less testing and fascinating. Which voices should be truly there, which felt to be coming at second or even third hand? In the end, Patrick Magee as Henry and Elvi Hale as Ada projected all voices except for the Music and Riding Masters. Addie remained an unlovable but unforgettable fantasy, dream or memory, sharply delineated by the voice of Ada and echoing in Henrys mimicry, a comically horrific source of irritation to him. How real should it sound?’ is the key question of Embers. It had to be asked about everything, including the sea, that ubiquitous sucking sound which it is so hard for the reader, as distinct from the listener, to imagine in every pause, as Beckett instructs him to. We were aiming to bring out as vividly as possible the variety and solidity of human feeling which is there, at the heart of the dream, though so disguised and oblique, so we chose to make our beach and sea noises real, using stereo effects to hint at the strange geography of the mind that is exposed to us, its distinct yet overlapping regions of musing, memory, fantasy, active creativity. The sea was the sound Matthew Arnold imagined and we all know so well, the ‘withdrawing roar,’ a familiar thing at the opposite pole from the ethereal sea of the BBC production which seemed to take its tone from Henry’s line: ‘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.’

The chance to make comparisons of this kind is what critics of Beckett’s broadcast drama badly need. Many productions, many different interpretations: something we take for granted in our thinking about stage drama. It would be pleasant for those of us who have been involved in making these London recordings to feel that we may be helping to bring about the more open situation that is so much to be desired.