Review: ‘Beckett and broadcasting: a study of the works of

Samuel Beckett for and in radio and television’

by Clas Zilliacus (Åbo, Åbo Akademi, 1976. 223 pp. Fmk 40)

 

John Fletcher

 

It is not often one can say that a book makes a unique contribution to our knowledge of Beckett’s work. But what Richard N. Coe has done for our understanding of the philosophical and religious aspects, or what Lawrence Harvey has told us about the close connections between Beckett’s life and his poetry, is now paralleled in Dr Zilliacus’s masterly and surely definitive study of the works for and in radio and television. No single stone is left unturned: he has read everything germane to his topic, much of it unpublished material in the archives of universities, publishers and broadcasting organizations around the world, and he has corresponded with everyone who could possibly tell him anything useful. In addition he has listened to or watched broadcasts and recordings which his own background in the profession uniquely qualifies him to evaluate. No one will be able to write about Beckett’s plays in future without referring constantly to this book, the fruit of several years’ concentrated, meticulous research. It is a treasure-house of information, all of it scrupulously documented, but it is more than that: an incisive and perceptive essay in criticism which throws new light on All that fall, Embers, Words and music, Cascando and Eh Joe, as well as on other non-media works like Krapp’s last tape and Play which have at various times been adapted for radio or television performance. As Zilliacus says, the media plays have tended to be ignored by serious Beckett critics, or at least misunderstood and underrated (my own critique of Eh Joe, deftly rebutted by Dr Zilliacus, being a case in point); but no one will any longer have any excuse for dismissing them lightly. Quite simply, his book is indispensable.

 

Having said that, I have to add that it is not without drawbacks. The style is sometimes clumsy and the text quite a trial to read, and the organization is not as rigorous as it might be (topics pop up for discussion in what appear occasionally as rather haphazard ways); the chapter on Cascando, though, like the others, rich in new material, is particularly hard to follow. As one might expect, the book gets more interesting as it goes on: the long section on All that fall does not contain much that is very original, whereas the Eh Joe and Words and music chapters are probably the best in the entire study.

 

Apart from close analyses of individual works, Dr Zilliacus includes a useful chapter on BBC Beckettiana apart from the media plays, in which he informs us for instance about those historic readings by Magee from the Trilogy, and a section (less valuable, this) on ‘Pause and Silence’ as an aesthetic device.

 

Not a perfect book, therefore, but what it lacks in rigour and elegance it amply makes up for in critical intelligence and thoroughness of documentation. As is usually the case, one wonders why no one has tackled such a rich and important subject before. Thanks to Dr Zilliacus’s conscientiousness and unique combination of qualifications (such as an evident ability to operate in all the major European languages) no one, at least, will need to go over the same ground again.