‘Embers’; an interpretation


Paul Lawley


The critic of Embers might be forgiven for feeling that when Hugh Kenner called it ‘Beckett’s most difficult work’1 he unwittingly sanctioned its neglect. Which would be strange indeed, for one expects the ‘most difficult work’ to attract an appropriately large mass of explication and interpretation. Yet it would not be going too far to say that Embers is neglected. Certainly the main critical books ‘cover’ the play, properly remarking what is characteristically Beckettian about its structure and apparent themes, but with the exception of Clas Zilliacus in his indispensable Beckett and broadcasting2 no-one has really offered to engage at close quarters with its difficulties. Articles by Katharine Worth3 (on space and sound in Beckett’s drama), Louise O. Cleveland4 (on the radio plays as a whole), and Hersh Zeifman5 (on religious imagery in the drama) contain useful insights into Embers, but I have found only two essays which concentrate exclusively on this play—by Zilliacus6 (though this is superseded by the chapter in his book) and by David J. Alpaugh.7 To suggest that Beckett critics have failed to deal fully with Embers because it is difficult would of course be ingenuous (to say the least). On the other hand it is impossible to tell for sure to what extent the neglect of the play is due to a belief that its difficulties are the result of fundamental flaws—of its being an imperfectly achieved work. Kenner maintains that the piece ‘coheres to perfection’8 but John Pilling disagrees, remarking that Embers ‘is the first of Beckett’s dramatic works that seems to lack a real centre’9; and Richard N. Coe considers the play ‘not only minor, but one of [Beckett’s] very few failures.’10 When I say that this play has been neglected, I mean not only that it has not been recognised for the achievement it is. In what follows, I shall try to locate its ‘real centre’ and to show how and in what it succeeds. In doing so, it must be noted, I shall be disagreeing with the author’s own brief estimate: ‘It’s not very satisfactory, but I think just worth doing . . . I think it just gets by for radio.’11


Beckett himself has made the most important point about Embers: ‘Cendres,’ he remarked in an interview with P.L. Mignon, ‘repose sur une ambiguité: le personnage a-t-il une hallucination ou est-il en présence de la réalité?’12 The most important point, but one to start from rather than conclude with. Beckett’s question has an obvious bearing on certain details of the play: Ada moves along and sits down on the shingle noiselessly where Henry makes the expected sound; the episodes concerning Addie certainly do not occur in a realistic way; the hooves Henry hears are the ‘traditional’ BBC coconut-shells, butt of so many jokes; and Henry himself finds the ‘sea’ worthy of mention: ‘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.’13 Such details exemplify the non-realistic, perhaps even anti-realistic style we should expect in a radio play by the author of All that fall. They are not, however, any more than in the earlier play, merely the quirky and eccentric manifestations of a habitual self-consciousness. As Beckett’s comment suggests, they serve to open up the large pervasive concerns of the play.


The Addie episodes are more obviously hallucinatory than anything else in the play, yet they are rather more complex than the word ‘hallucination’ might suggest. When Ada asks him ‘What do you suppose is keeping her?’ Henry (but not Ada) hears a ‘smart blow of cylindrical ruler on piano case’ from Addie’s music master; Addie herself plays some scales and then a Chopin waltz, number 5 in A Flat Major. ‘In the first chord of bass, bar 5, she plays E instead of F. Resounding blow of ruler on piano case. ADDIE stops playing’ (29):


Music Master:   (violently). Fa!

            Addle:               (tearfully). What?

            Music Master:   (violently). Eff! Eff!

            Addle:               (tearfully). Where?

            Music Master:   (violently). Qua! (He thumps note.) Fa! Pause.

                                     ADDIE begins again. MUSIC MASTER beating

                                     time lightly with ruler. When she comes to bar 5

                                     she makes same mistake. Tremendous blow of

                                     ruler on piano case. ADDIE stops playing, begins

                                     to wail.

            Music Master:  (frenziedly). Eff! Eff! (He hammers note.) Eff! (He

                                    hammers note.) Eff!                      

                                    Hammered note, ‘Eff!’ and ADDIE’s wail ampli-

                                    fied to paroxysm, then suddenly cut off. Pause.

            Ada  :              You are silent today.

            Henry :             It was not enough to drag her into the world, now

                                    she must play the piano.

            Ada :                She must learn. She shall learn. That - and

                                    riding. Hooves walking.

            Riding Master:  Now Miss! Elbows in Miss! Hands down Miss!

                                    (Hooves trotting.) Now Miss! Back straight Miss!

                                    Knees in Miss! (Hooves cantering.) Now Miss!

Tummy in Miss!  Chin up Miss! (Hooves galloping.)

                                    Now Miss! Eyes front Miss! (ADDIE begins to

                                    wail.) Now Miss! Now Miss!

                                    Galloping hooves, `Now Miss! and ADDIE’s

                                    wail amplified to paroxysm, then suddenly cut off.


            Ada :                What are you thinking of? (Pause.) I was never

                                    taught, until it was too late. All my life I regretted

                                    it. (30-1)


The two episodes are aural images of coercion, ‘domestic’ situations which turn into nightmares. The gulf between the domestic and the nightmarish—and yet their strange forced coexistence—is caught in the wonderfully Beckettian bathos of Henry’s reaction: ‘It was not enough to drag her into the world, now she must play the piano’; and Ada’s chilling rejoinder: ‘She must learn. She shall learn. That—and riding.’ Or of Ada’s comment on riding: ‘I was never taught, until it was too late. All my life I regretted it.’ (And how characteristic of this author is the comma which so deliberately breaks the back of the first of these two sentences, adding to the oddly comical gravity of the lateness.) The reactions seem out of joint; they lack, one might say, adequate objective correlatives. Consequently there is an eerie gap between piano-playing and riding on the one hand and the violence, frenzy and ‘paroxysm’ of Henry’s imaginative realisation of them on the other. Of course it is precisely this creative gap that the images are about. Addie’s inability to play the right note and ride according to instructions mirrors Henry’s inability to find an objective correlative for what is essentially his own creative predicament. The Addie ‘hallucinations’ are images created by Henry of his own situation: like Addie he cannot ‘eff the ineffable’ (a favourite Beckett joke here ‘amplified to paroxysm’); he can only recruit memories or scenes which are available to him and press them into service by modifying and shaping them into images of the self in creation. (The idea of the coerced artist becomes especially prominent—though it is implicitly present throughout Beckett’s work—in the radio plays of the early 1960’s: Words and music, Cascando, and the sketch printed under the title Radio II.) But the images of inadequacy are themselves inadequate—they too miss (‘Now Miss! Now Miss!’) their target—and this creative failure is powerfully suggested in Henry’s oddly fractured reaction, ‘It was not enough to drag her into the world, now she must play the piano.’ The significance of the line consists not in what piano-playing (or riding) means but in what Henry has made it mean.


The Addie episodes are not realistic, but does it necessarily follow that they are to be seen as totally hallucinatory? Or, to put the question another way, are they merely happenings within Henry’s mind, exclusive of anything external? It is important to note that what we hear is Addie’s voice (and her music/riding master’s) and not just Henry’s version of it. The distinction is important enough for Beckett to have made it some moments earlier:


            Henry : . . . horrid little creature, wish to God we’d never had her,

                        I use to walk with her in the fields, Jesus that was awful,

                        she wouldn’t let go my hand and I mad to talk. ‘Run

                        along now, Addie, and look at the lambs.’ (Imitating

                        ADDIE’S voice.) ‘No papa.’ ‘Go on now, go on.’

                        (Plaintive.) ‘No papa.’ (Violent.) ‘Go on with you when

                        you’re told and look at the lambs!’ (ADDIE’S loud wail. . .)



The moment of Addie’s ‘loud wail’ is one of the most haunting in a play full of haunting moments. The difference between imitation and real imagining is a crucial one for Henry, since he needs to believe that others - not just his own invented characters - are with him. We have seen that Addie episodes are essentially Henry’s own unsuccessful images of himself (though they might be based on memories), but he needs to believe that they do concern someone other than himself. Part of the impact of his curious reaction to the piano-playing paroxysm is, I think, the compassion it shows for the child. It cannot be reduced to self-pity. Indeed it is partly because Addie is still, to Henry, another person, that the image is unsuccessful on its own terms. Though he dare not, for purposes of survival, admit his own failing creativity, Henry can imagine and even sympathise with the predicaments of others: it is the lack of impersonality in his imaginings which betrays him and his own failing creativity.


Several details in Embers suggest its protagonist’s creative decline. Henry repeats a strange line in his story: ‘Vega in the Lyre very green’ (23). Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, here fading and sickening: the name comes from the Arabic for ‘the falling (vulture)’;14 and of course the lyre itself is a traditional emblem of artistic creation. Ada contrasts the sea as it was when she and Henry made love by it with what it is now: ‘It was rough, the spray came flying over us. (Pause.) Strange it should have been rough then. (Pause.) And calm now’ (29). They remember the hollow where they ‘did it at last for the first time’:


Ada:     The place has not changed.

            Henry: Oh yes it has, I can see it. (Confidentially.) There is a levelling going on! (34)


The hooves which Henry invokes function as, among other things, an index of his power to invoke, his imagination. He can call them up before the conversation with Ada, but not after. And during the conversation:


            Henry: Hooves! (Pause. Louder.) Hooves! (Sound of hooves walking on hard road. They die rapidly away.) Again!

            Ada:     Did you hear them?

            Henry: Not well.

            Ada:     Galloping?

            Henry: No. (27-8)


But the most complex and important image and index of Henry’s creative decline is of course the one involving the embers of the play’s title, the story of Bolton and Holloway.


‘This I fancy,’ says the thirty-nine-year-old Krapp, ‘is what I have chiefly to record his evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that. . . (hesitates) . . . for the fire that set it alight’ (15-16). The miracle-fire is a creative fire, the writer’s energy, and the next-to-last sentence we hear in the play, as we look at the Krapp who ‘crawled out once or twice, before the summer was cold,’ to sit ‘shivering in the park,’ is: ‘Not with the fire in me now’ (18, 20). Embers takes up the image and dampens it. The association of fire and warmth with artistic creation is commonplace. For an example—which is itself an allusion—we need go no further than Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus: ‘When the esthetic image is first conceived in [the artist’s] imagination . . . the mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal.’15 Or Kafka—as might be expected the creator of the Bucket-rider is even closer in spirit to Beckett than to Joyce:


6 December. From a letter: ‘During this dreary winter I warm myself by it.’ Metaphors are one among many things which make me despair of writing. Writing’s lack of independence of the world, its dependence on the maid who tends the fire, on the cat warming himself by the stove; it is even dependent on the poor old human being warming himself by the stove. All these are independent activities ruled by their own laws; only writing is helpless, cannot live in itself, is a joke and a despair.16


In enacting the ‘law’ (that writing is always dependent on something other than itself) by building up a symbolic image of domestic interdependence, this passage from Kafka’s diaries anticipates Embers, and indeed much else in Beckett, in a quite remarkable way. It not only brings forth an image which might fairly be taken by anyone as typical of Beckett (compare the first of the poems in Words and music); more importantly, it gives us a succinct and accurate description of the basic structure of all Beckett’s plays, a structure generated by the central figure (Hamm, Krapp, Henry, Winnie, Mouth, May) in the process of his or her response to the creative-ontological predicament which we must now attempt to define.


Henry’s ‘unfinished’ narrative about Bolton and Holloway (‘I never finished it, I never finished any of them, I never finished anything, everything always went on forever,’ 22-3) contains the chief symbolic image of Embers. He makes three attempts at the story during the play (two before and one after the conversation with Ada), the last ending in an impasse which we can only presume is familiar to him. He starts off (but where is his real beginning?) with the invocation (for this is what it is: ‘Bolton . . . Bolton!’ [23]) of ‘an old fellow called Bolton’ (22) ‘standing there on the hearthrug in the dark before the fire with his arms on the chimney-piece and his head on his arms, standing there waiting in the dark before the fire in his old red dressing-gown and no sound in the house of any kind, only the song of the fire,’ and ‘no light, only the light of the fire, . . . an old man in great trouble,’ (like Kafka’s ‘poor old human being’). ‘Ring then at the door and over he goes to the window and looks out between the hangings, fine old chap, very big and strong, bright winter’s night, snow everywhere, bitter cold, white world, cedar boughs bending under load, and then as the arm goes up to ring again recognises Holloway . . . (long pause) . . . yes, Holloway, recognises Holloway, goes down and opens’ (23).


Holloway is brisk, terse, businesslike, vulgar even: he stands ‘on the hearthrug trying to toast his arse, . . . fine old chap, six foot, burly, legs apart, hands behind his back holding up the tails of his old macfarlane’ (24). But Bolton continues to gaze out through the hangings at the ‘white world’ outside. Henry’s cadence is slow but vertiginous: ‘. . . 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’ (24). He breaks off the story momentarily, but resolves to ‘try again.’ Holloway starts to complain about being called out by his ‘old friend, in the cold and dark, . . . urgent need, bring a bag, then not a word, no explanation, no heat, no light.’ Bolton does not explain: the only word he can summon is ‘“Please! PLEASE!”‘ Ignoring him, Holloway complains even more, but his judgement of Bolton’s hospitality (‘no refreshment, no welcome’) merges inexorably with Henry’s judgement of his own narrative ability: ‘. . . white beam from the window, ghostly scene, wishes to God he hadn’t come, no good, fire out, bitter cold, great trouble, white world, not a sound, no good. (Pause.) No good. (Pause.) Can’t do it’ (25). Thus the second attempt at the story peters out.


The third and last attempt comes near the end of the play, when Ada has left Henry and the fragments of narrative ‘rubbish’ she had provided for him have been exhausted. It seems he has reached a crisis of imaginative power, for he can no longer call up even the ‘sound of hooves walking on a hard road’ (21-2) which served to assure him of his creative strength at the beginning of the play. The continuation of the story is strange, haunting and, as Henry himself admits, ‘difficult to describe.’ Nevertheless it is crucial to the understanding of the play and therefore demands to be quoted in toto:


Christ! (Pause.) ‘My dear Bolton . . . ‘ (Pause.) ‘If it’s an injection you want, Bolton, let down your trousers and I’ll give you one, I have a panhysterectomy at nine,’ meaning of course the anaesthetic. (Pause.) Fire out, bitter cold, white world, great trouble, not a sound. (Pause.) Bolton starts playing with the curtain, no, hanging, difficult to describe, draws it back, no, kind of gathers it towards him and the moon comes flooding in, then lets it fall back, heavy velvet affair, and pitch black in the room, then towards him again, white, black, white, black, Holloway: `Stop that for the love of God, Bolton, do you want to finish me?’ (Pause.) Black, white, black, white, maddening thing. (Pause.) Then he suddenly strikes a match, Bolton does, lights a candle, catches it up above his head, walks over and looks Holloway full in the eye. (Pause.) Not a word, just the look, the old blue eye, very glassy, lids worn thin, lashes gone, whole thing swimming, and the candle shaking over his head. (Pause.) Tears? (Pause. Long laugh.) Good God no! (Pause.) Not a word, just the look, the old blue eye, Holloway: ‘If you want a shot say so and let me get to hell out of here.’ (Pause.) ‘We’ve had this before, Bolton, don’t ask me to go through it again.’ (Pause.) Bolton: ‘Please!’ (Pause.) ‘Please!’ (Pause.) ‘Please, Holloway!’ (Pause.) 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.) Holds it high again, naughty world, fixes Holloway, eyes drowned, won’t ask again, just the look, Holloway covers his face, not a sound, white world, bitter cold, ghastly scene, old men, great trouble, no good. (Pause.) No good. (Pause.) Christ! (38-9)


Hersh Zeifman, for whom Embers ‘dramatizes a quest for salvation, a quest which, as always, ultimately proves fruitless,’17 sees this scene as ‘a paradigm of human suffering and divine rejection’:


Bolton’s desperate plea to Holloway for help mirrors the confrontation between Henry and his father. Bolton is thus a surrogate for Henry—implicitly identified with Christ as sufferer. Both his name (Bolton) and the fact that he wears a red dressing gown (the colour is repeated three times in the text) link him with the Crucifixion (before Christ was nailed to the cross, he was dressed in a scarlet robe). And Holloway, the recipient of Bolton’s supplication, is a surrogate for Henry’s father—implicitly identified with Christ as saviour. Like Christ, Holloway is a physician, a potential healer of men’s souls. But the identification is an ironic one. The Physician of the Gospels exclaimed, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me’ (John 14:6); the physician of Embers is a hollow-way, a way leading nowhere. And whereas Christ’s death on the cross at `the ninth hour’ represents birth into a new life and a promise of salvation, Holloway’s actions, likewise at the ninth hour, result in the death of new life, a universal denial of salvation: `If it’s an injection you want, Bolton, let down your trousers and I’ll give you one, I have a panhysterectomy at nine’ (italics added [by Zeifman]).18


The point is well made: Henry’s story introduces a religious dimension into Embers by means of an emblematic structure. Zeifman’s exegesis concentrates on emblems: the red dressing gown, the encoding names of the characters, the Physician-figure and the mention of the ‘ninth hour.’ This approach fits in well with the creating character’s self-consciousness in composition: Henry is no doubt mean to be seen to be using emblems. Thus the religious-emblematic reading is illuminating as far as it goes; but it does not go far enough. Above all it fails to suggest how the rest of the play actively supports this kind of interpretation; more particularly—and more obviously—it leaves out rather too much in the way of detail of what it purports to explicate. For example: why does Bolton play with the hanging in the way he does? (Or rather, why does Henry take such trouble to describe what he thinks of as being merely ‘playing’?) What is the significance of the candle? Of Bolton’s eyes? Why does Holloway react as he does? These questions need to be answered if the full significance of the scene is to be drawn out.


A full understanding is possible only in the light of the symbolic structure which Henry has been creating for himself throughout the play and of which this final narrative scene is itself the crucial component. We must start, however, with local suggestion. Bolton’s embers are dead (‘Fire out, bitter cold’), and, whereas before there had been ‘no light, only the light of the fire’ (23), he now has to create his own light for the interview with Holloway. Thus he starts ‘playing with the curtain, no, hanging, difficult to describe, draws it back, no, kind of gathers it towards him . . .’ The ‘difficulty’ here, for both Henry and Beckett, concerns suggestion: the specific ‘curtain’ is altered to ‘hanging’ which, though it too refers to a particular thing, is capable of a wider application; the alteration from ‘draws it back’ to ‘kind of gathers it toward him’ (which also involves a movement towards vagueness) has a similar effect. The alternate ‘white, black, white, black’ when Bolton plays with the hanging enacts the effect of an eye blinking and I think it is to gain this suggestion that Henry’s alterations are made: the hanging is a kind of eye-lid—a very tired one, and thus is ‘kind of gathered’ rather than drawn. The implication of this detail is that, as with the stage-picture of Endgame, Henry’s story presents an image of a skull-room in the midst of a waste-land. The waste-land of this story is a landscape of snow, a ‘white world’—perhaps this is a Christian story (‘Christ!’ is one of Henry’s most frequent and significant exclamations) like Hamm’s ‘chronicle.’ The inner fire having died, Bolton is ‘playing with’ the eye-lid/hanging in order to let in the light of the outer world. The candle he then lights is the last resort, the last creative deed in a literally ‘naught-y world.’ Holloway is willing to give Bolton an anaesthetic to remove his creativity altogether, thus setting the seal on his predicament. In fact the ambiguity of Henry’s narration at this point suggests that the anaesthetic and the panhysterectomy’ are the same thing: ‘“If it’s an injection you want, Bolton, let down your trousers and I’ll give you one, I have a panhysterectomy at nine,” meaning of course the anaesthetic.’ ‘Anaesthetic’ refers back to ‘injection,’ but Henry’s delay in saying so has the effect of eliding this idea with that of the ‘panhysterectomy,’ as though that concerned Bolton as well. Indeed in an important sense it does, for anaesthetic is a pun, where an- is a negative prefix: an- aesthetic. Both the panhysterectomy Holloway mentions and the an-aesthetic he offers Bolton are ways of negating and finally destroying creativity.


It seems that Bolton’s plea is not for an-aesthetic (or the anaesthetic). We might assume that he is pleading for exactly the opposite: a creative fire, a warmth and light that Holloway cannot give. And yet we are never told that: Henry’s narrative does not give us the information which is so vital to an understanding of it. It is as though Henry had again failed to find an adequate objective correlative for those inner needs which he is apparently obliged to express. Hence one feels that something crucially important is being hidden behind the puzzlingly intense exclamation of Holloway to Bolton when the latter looks him ‘full in the eye’: ‘“Stop that for the love of God, Bolton, do you want to finish me?” . . . “We’ve had this before, Bolton, don’t ask me to go through it again.” Finally ‘Holloway covers his face.’ But why should Holloway feel that a look from the ‘eyes drowned’ would ‘finish’ him?


I think that the existence of these questions itself indicates their solutions. They exist because Henry’s creativity is breaking down and he can no longer maintain his narrative impersonality (but how desperately important to him is that process to which one can only attach a critical tag). The story is coming apart, but at the same time it is managing to produce an image which counterpoints its own failure. Henry is losing his creative impersonality and is consequently moving inexorably into identity with his fictional creation, Bolton. And this process is exactly what is being represented by the story: what Holloway fears—the thing which will quite literally ‘finish’ his identity as Holloway—is a merging of identity with Bolton. The narrative image counterpoints Henry’s own creative predicament rather than merely mirrors it because it contains an extra element, that of Bolton’s pleading. Nevertheless Henry makes his identity with Bolton more or less explicit: ‘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!’ Henry’s own fiction has revealed his begging (the ‘Please!’ is now Henry’s) for what it is and always was. Ada’s ‘prophecy’ (which Henry seems to ignore) is fulfilled:


The time comes when one cannot speak to you any more. (Pause.) The time will come when no one will speak to you at all, not even complete strangers. (Pause.) You will be quite alone with your voice, there will be no other voice in the world but yours. (35)


Ada’s and Addie’s voices have disappeared long since; now Henry cannot even manage impersonations of his fictional characters. All his fictions, from whatever direction, end up merging with him. Ada and Addie seem real enough—particularly the former—as other presences, but they are revealed as being essentially projections of his own mind, based on reality though they might be (but what is the Beckettian ‘reality’?). And his story (‘a great one’), from which he seems at first so detached, reveals itself in the end to have been all about him. Perhaps it was not so detached from him after all: Ada, advising him about his talking, tells him to ‘see Holloway’ (34). One of his inventions commends him to another; ‘a-t-il une hallucination ou est-il en présence de la réalité?’


Bolt(on) and Hollow(way) are complementary, made for each other. The imagery which portends and attends their merging and Henry’s consequent creative collapse relates importantly to, and takes its place within, the symbolic structure of the play. From the skull-room with its window-eyes (and hanging-lids) the narrative focus abruptly contracts, when Bolton ‘lights a candle, catches it up above his head, walks over and looks Holloway full in the eye,’ concentrating on Bolton’s own skull with its ‘old blue eye, very glassy, lids worn thin, lashes gone, whole thing swimming . . .’ The eye becomes a kind of sea, for, despite Henry’s dismissal of tears with a ‘long laugh,’ the ‘whole thing’ is ‘swimming’ until ‘eyes drowned’ and ‘Holloway covers his face.’ It is as though Holloway himself were drowning in Bolton’s eye. Earlier it is when, because of Bolton’s playing with the hanging, ‘the moon [controller of the seas] comes flooding in,’ that Holloway declares, ‘Stop that for the love of God, Bolton, do you want to finish me?’ In the light of what we have already noted about the merging of the identities of Bolton and Holloway, the pun on ‘eye’ is clear (this is after all an aural and not a visual work): Holloway is indeed drowning in Bolton’s ‘I’—hence the ambiguous ‘eyes drowned’ which could apply to either character but which of course applies to them both: ‘I’s drowned.’ One might say that the symbolic structure of Embers (which is also Henry’s own imaginative structure) is built on the punning relation of eye-I to see-sea.


Holloway’s terror of drowning in Bolton’s eye is Henry’s created image of his own terror of drowning in or being drowned by (the distinction is important) the sea. The sound of the sea is the reason why Henry has to keep talking:


            Today it’s calm, but I often hear it above in the house and walking the roads and start talking, oh just loud enough to drown it, nobody notices. (22)


The real sea (but what is the real sea in the play?) colludes with the one in his head: ‘. . . I’d be talking now no matter where I was, I once went to Switzerland to get away from the cursed thing and never stopped all the time I was there’ (22). Indeed what Henry hears—and the listener with him—seems at once like the sea but not the sea. ‘Listen to it,’ he cries at a moment when words seem to fail him, ‘Close your eyes and listen to it, what would you think it was?’ And, as the creator of Dan Rooney is always aware, our eyes too are, in effect, closed; when, at the beginning of the play, Henry addresses the ‘old man, blind and foolish’ whom he takes to be his father ‘back from the dead, to be with me . . . in this strange place,’ he is also addressing the radio-listener:19


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.


This is not just a joke on the ‘blind’ audience or an underlining of the nature of the medium (though it is certainly that too), nor is it just a preliminary scene-setting. ‘Sea’ states Beckett’s direction baldly, but what we hear in the original BBC production (by Donald McWhinnie) is indeed very ‘unlike the sound of the sea.’ ‘Close your eyes and listen to it,’ orders Henry, ‘what would you think it was? . . . Listen to it! What is it like?’ (29) ‘Like my Hoover,’ wrote a BBC Third Programme panel member.20 As we shall see, she (or he) was not far from the truth. What then does the sea-sound mean? Or what does it suggest? Obviously the real sea ‘means’ nothing, but the sea in Henry’s head has a palpable significance for him, elusive though it may be.


The salient facts can be pieced together from Henry’s monologue. His self-questioning hints at them:


And I live on the brink of it! Why? Professional obligations? (Brief laugh.) Reasons of health? (Brief laugh.) Family ties? (Brief laugh) A woman? (Laugh in which ADA joins.) Some old grave I cannot tear myself away from? (Pause.). (28-9)


The absence of a laugh confirms the last question, though it is always difficult for Henry to admit this possibility. He favours indirection, describing his father’s drowning in the sea as ‘that evening bathe you took once too often’ (22). This evasive irony is important, for it draws attention to another of the play’s significant ambiguities: was Henry’s father washed out to sea whilst taking his evening bathe, or did he commit suicide? Or again, did he allow himself to be washed out whilst bathing? This death bears a deeply ambiguous relation to suicide, and suicide casts its shadow over the whole play, for it is one of Henry’s alternatives—in the end, perhaps, the only action which remains for him.


At this point I think some interesting parallels between Embers and Tennyson’s Maud are worth dwelling upon, since they point us in an important direction. The propriety of the comparison is first of all formal, since the hero of Maud, as Christopher Ricks notes, ‘is so near madness—and does indeed go mad [‘There’s something wrong with your brain,’ Ada tells Henry (33)]—that it is possible, apt, and compelling for ‘successive phases of passion in one person [to] take the place of successive persons.’ The dislocations of self in the hero can be turned—with creative appositeness—to something that is lamentably like the company of successive persons’?21 In a footnote Ricks invokes Krapp’s last tape but Embers would have done as well (Tennyson subtitles Maud ‘a monodrama,’ an apt description of either Beckett piece), and indeed this play provides further remarkable parallels with Maud.22 To begin with, Tennyson’s own father’s death (of drink) stands in much the same relation to suicide as that of the fictional Henry’s father. ‘Suicide: the word about his father’s death was out before Tennyson was born, and the nature of his father’s death was later to haunt him. How much was there of metaphor when people saw his father’s drinking as suicide?’23 The opening lines of Maud are both hysterical and strangely affirmative:


            I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood,

            Its lips in the field above are dabbled with blood-red heath,

The red-ribbed ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,

            And Echo there, whatever is asked her, answers ‘Death.’


The hollow is the place into which his father ‘dashed’ himself down in his madness. ‘He does not hate a person, but a place,’ observes Ricks, ‘—but then the place has a surrealistic lunacy which suggests a bleeding woman.’24 We have already noted the hollow (‘There is a levelling going on’) and the Holloway in Embers. There is also a drip:


            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. Amplification begins.) No! (Drip cut off. Pause.) Father! (24)


The question is what does Henry think it is? Why do we assume that the drip is water? (Compare Hamm in Endgame: ‘Something dripping in my head, ever since the fontanelles . . . Splash, splash, always on the same spot . . . Perhaps it’s a little vein . . . A little vein . . . A little artery.’25) The Embers—sea also has lips—and not only lips:


            Listen to it! (Pause.) Lips and claws! (Pause.) Get away from it! Where it couldn’t get at me! The Pampas! What? (28)


Henry’s later description of the sea-sound as ‘this . . . sucking’ (33; ‘Like my Hoover’?) compounds the suggestiveness. His intensely physical revulsion from a place or thing, as if it were some sexually devouring female (vagina dentata?) presents a parallel to the opening of Tennyson’s poem—‘I hate the dreadful hollow . . . ‘The sea does not wait passively to receive him but seems physically to pursue him (‘Get away from it! Where it couldn’t get at me!’) and to insinuate itself into his mind.


Despite his obsession with his father’s death, the relationship between the two of them appears to have been far from positive:


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?’ ‘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. (25)


His father is not blamed for his harshness; in fact by imagining the reproof (which parallels, at least verbally, Henry’s outburst at his own child, ‘remembered’ a few moments later) Henry acquiesces in it: though ‘an old man, blind and foolish,’ the father still holds sway (like the Freudian super-ego) in the son’s mind. Henry’s need for his father makes him at times even servile. On the other hand there are traces of a grudge borne against his mother. He wishes to Christ she had slammed life shut on him by ‘washing him out’ (aborting him: a violent joke in the light of his father’s last ‘evening bathe’ and his own sea-haunted mind). There is an important pun concerning her (noticed by the TLS reviewer on the play’s first appearance in print26):


Father! (Pause.) Tired of talking to you. (Pause.) That was always the way, walk all over the mountains with you talking and talking and then suddenly mum and home in misery and not a word to a soul for weeks, sulky old bastard, better off dead, better off dead. (26)


‘Mum’ is the stopping of talking. Is she also the stopper of talking, formerly his father’s and now Henry’s own? Henry’s only other reference to his mother is similarly indeterminate and suggestive:


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. (22)


What ‘grieved mother greatly’? That the body was never found? If so, was her grief because ‘that held up probate an unconscionable time’? Henry tells us that he got the money, and presumably his mother knew he would: her grief would in that case bespeak her concern for him. But does he hold against her something unspecified involving his father?


Psychologizing of characters is rarely if ever of any use in the discussion of Beckett’s drama, but this particular line of speculation does enable us to ask a further important and not specifically psychological question about the significance of the sea in Embers. In Buck Mulligan’s words: ‘Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother?’27 Or rather, for Henry, a great devouring mother? No doubt we have here another version of that obsessive Beckett image, the imperfect birth,28 with Henry striving to free himself completely from the devouring womb of the mother-sea which will not let him go. At this point it may help to consider how the Embers-sea contrasts with Freud’s ‘oceanic’ feeling:


. . . originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present ego-feeling is therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive—indeed all-embracing—feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it. If we may assume that there are many people in whose mental life this primary ego-feeling has persisted to a greater or less degree, it would exist in them side by side with the narrower and more sharply demarcated ego-feeling of maturity, like a kind of counterpart to it. In that case, the ideational contents appropriate to it would be precisely those of limitlessness and of a bond with the universe—the same ideas with which my friend elucidated the ‘oceanic’ feeling.29


In their vastly different mediums, Beckett and Freud (after Romain Rolland, who is the friend he mentions) both use the sea as a covering metaphor for the external world as perceived by the abnormal or extraordinary (using those words in the most literal sense possible) mind. It represents the ‘non-self’ which may at any moment engulf the self. The crucial divergence, of course, is in the attitudes towards that prospective engulfment. For Freud, insofar as he follows Rolland’s lead, it is nothing to be feared; indeed, the promised sensations of ‘limitless and of a bond with the universe,’ immediately recognisable as the great aims of European Romanticism, seem nothing if not positive—although Freud himself is sceptical.30 Both Romantic abandon and Freudian sobriety stand in stark contrast to the horror of Beckett’s Henry: ‘Listen to it! . . . Lips and claws! . . . Get away from it! Where it couldn’t get at me!’


The contrast has not prevented David J. Alpaugh from attempting a Freudian critical analysis of Embers. This approach introduces a moralistic note which is alien not only to this work but to all Beckett’s drama.31 But if Embers resists interpretation in Freudian terms, the relation of Henry’s sea in the play to the ‘oceanic’ feeling is nonetheless worth consideration. Anton Ehrenzweig accords the latter concept an important place in his theory of artistic creation, thus bringing it within the orbit of our concern:


Freud spoke of an ‘oceanic’ feeling characteristic of religious experience; the mystic feels at one with the universe, his individual existence lost like a drop in the ocean. He may re-experience a primitive state of mind when the child was not yet aware of his separate individuality, but felt at one with his mother. Fantasies of returning to the womb may have this mystic oceanic quality. It is now widely realised that any—not only religious—creative experience can produce an oceanic state. In my view this state need not be due to a ‘regression,’ to an infantile state, but could be the product of the extreme dedifferentiation in the lower levels of the ego which occurs during creative work. Dedifferentiation suspends many kinds of boundaries and distinctions; at an extreme limit it may remove the boundaries of individual existence and so produce a mystic oceanic feeling . . . 32


Some fine exegesis by Hersh Zeifman suggests that ideas of this sort are not altogether foreign to Embers. The last lines of the play are very puzzling:


Little book. (Pause.) This evening . . . (Pause.) Nothing this evening. (Pause.) Tomorrow . . . tomorrow . . . plumber at nine, then nothing. (Pause. Puzzled.) Plumber at nine? (Pause.) Ah yes, the waste. (Pause.) Words. (Pause.) Saturday . . . nothing. Sunday . . . Sunday . . . nothing all day. (Pause.) Nothing, all day nothing. (Pause.) All day all night nothing. (Pause.) Not a sound. Sea. (39)


Zeifman notes that in the poem ‘Calvary by night,’ included in the short story ‘A wet night’ (More pricks than kicks), Beckett speaks of the death of Christ as being a ‘re-enwombing’ in ‘the water/the waste of water,’33 a plumbing of the depths, in other words: ‘Keeping in mind the image of Christ’s death as a descent into water, the ‘plumber’ [at the end of Embers] is thus seen to refer to Jesus, who was crucified on Friday at the ninth hour. Christ therefore ‘plumbs’ the waste (‘the waste/ the waste of water’). But ‘waste’ also refers to the significance of his death. For on Saturday, the day of waiting, there is nothing; but there is likewise nothing on Sunday, the day of resurrection, the day on which Christ should rise from the dead and regain paradise for man’34 (The ‘waste’ is of course also the words Henry uses and has used.) After this ‘re-enwombing’ there is no rebirth.


Ehrenzweig also connects the ‘oceanic’ feeling with a re-enwombment (‘fantasies of returning to the womb . . .’) and he goes on to suggest that the ‘creative experience can produce an oceanic state.’ He discards the notion (adopted by Alpaugh) that such experience is ‘infantile’ and goes on to claim that the ‘oceanic’ state ‘could be the product of the extreme dedifferentiation in the lower levels of the ego which occurs during creative work.’ The idea of ‘dedifferentiation,’ which ‘suspends many kinds of boundaries and distinctions’ and ‘at an extreme limit may remove the boundaries of individual existence and so produce’ the ‘oceanic’ feeling, is recognisable as a Neo-Freudian reformulation of one of the major preoccupations of Romanticism (which we noted earlier in Freud’s own account). (René Wellek has written of ‘the great endeavour to overcome the split between subject and object, the self and the world, the conscious and the unconscious. This is the central creed of the great Romantic poets in England, Germany and France.’35) It is interesting to note that the radical technical and stylistic responses of several Modernist writers to epistemological and ontological problems closely related to the Romantic ones were described by one great modern poet in terms strikingly similar to those used by Ehrenzweig in his theory. W.B. Yeats (the editor of Blake and admirer of Shelley) wrote in 1936 of modern artistic attitudes towards the external world and its relation to the perceiving subject:


Change has come suddenly, the despair of my friends in the ‘nineties part of its preparation. Nature, steel-bound or stone-built in the nineteenth century, became a flux where man drowned or swam; the moment had come for some poet to cry ‘the flux is in my own mind.’36


He had written earlier, in 1932:


Certain typical books—Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s The waves, Mr. Ezra Pounds Draft of XXX Cantos—suggest a philosophy like that of the Samkara school of ancient India, mental and physical objects alike material, a deluge of experience breaking over us and within us, melting limits whether of line or tint; man no hard bright mirror dawdling by the dry sticks of a hedge, but a swimmer, or rather the waves themselves. In this new literature . . . as in that which it superseded, man himself is nothing.37


‘“The flux is in my own mind”’; man is ‘a swimmer, or rather the waves themselves . . . man in himself is nothing.’ Compare Beckett on van Velde in Three dialogues: ‘But if the occasion appears as an unstable term of relation, the artist, who is the other term, is hardly less so.’38 (Where Yeats’s artist is a swimmer, Beckett’s is a ‘fodient rodent,’ with ‘his warren of modes and attitudes.’39) Against the identity-less mind-flux of the swimmer-become-waves must be set Yeats’s description of his own creative state: ‘I have been cast up out of the whale’s belly though I still remember the sound and sway that came from beyond its ribs, and, like the Queen in Paul Fort’s ballad, I smell of the fish of the sea.’40 Yeats’s depths, as the context of this passage makes clear, are chronological and cultural ones, but the shared metaphor is the important factor. In the process of creation Yeats retains his own identity, Jonah-like, in the whale’s belly before being cast up to prophecy. He is aware, with a creative awareness, both of the sea and of the solid mass which prevents its invasion, ‘from beyond the ribs,’ of his identity. In a sense the whale’s ribs, in this state of immersion, are the new boundaries, determined by the creative state, of that identity—hard, basic, regular and reassuring.


Returning to Embers, we might now consider, in the light of Yeats’s images, Henry’s strange yet urgent need for hard, regular sounds, seemingly to offset the undifferentiated ‘sucking’ roar of the ‘lips and claws’: the ‘violent slam of the door’ he imagines twice as his father calls him (its antithesis) a ‘washout’; Addie’s music master ‘beating time lightly with ruler as she plays’ (29; and his ‘tremendous blow of the ruler on the piano case’); Ada’s strong point at school, ‘geometry, I suppose, plane and solid . . . First plane, then solid’ (31); their love-making (‘years we kept hammering away at it,’ 34); Henry’s wanting to go for a row (34); his childish response to Ada’s question, ‘Did you put on your jaegers, Henry?’: ‘What happened was this, I put them on and then I took them off again and then I put them on again and then I took them off again and then I put them on again and then I -’ (27); the remorseless drip which he invokes; Bolton’s playing with the hanging (‘Black, white, black, white’); the scrunching sound of the shingle as Henry walks. Most obvious of all is the sound of hooves which Henry invokes repeatedly, ‘hooves walking on hard road.’ We hear them in Addie’s nightmare riding lesson (‘amplified to paroxysm’) which Henry imagines. They are the index of his imaginative power—at the end of the play he cannot hear them. They must be rhythmically regular; his strangest fancies are about hooves marking time:


Train it to mark time! Shoe it with steel and tie it up in the yard, have it stamp all day! (Pause.) A ten-ton mammoth back from the dead, shoe it with steel and have it tramp the world down! (Pause.) Listen to it! (22)


And later, having called up the hooves again:


            Henry:  . . . Could a horse mark time?


            Ada:     I’m not sure that I know what you mean.

            Henry:  (irritably). Could a horse be trained to stand still and mark time with its four legs?

            Ada:     Oh. (Pause.) The ones I used to fancy all did. (Shelaughs. Pause.) Laugh, Henry, it’s not every day I crack a joke. (28)


Ada reduces Henry’s obsession, frantic as it is, to a joke. Indeed it is she who tries to seduce him into abandoning himself to the sea in an insinuatingly powerful passage which makes explicit the antithesis of the dedifferentiated ‘sucking’ ocean and the rhythmic solidity of individual identity:


Ada:     . . . It’s silly to say it keeps you from hearing it, it doesn’t keep you from hearing it and even if it does you shouldn’t be hearing it, there must be something wrong with your brain.


            Henry: That! I shouldn’t be hearing that!

Ada:     I don’t think you are hearing it. And if you are what’s wrong with it, it’s a lovely peaceful gentle soothing sound, why do you hate it? (Pause.) And if you hate it why don’t you keep away from it? Why are you always coming down here? (Pause.) There’s something wrong with your brain, you ought to see Holloway, he’s still alive isn’t he?


Henry: (wildly). 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!

            Ada:     And why life? (Pause.) Why life, Henry? (32-3)


To Ada’s last, quiet, terrible question there is no real answer, for his ‘life’ is only to be found in the thuds he wants. Ada’s voice is ‘low’ and ‘remote’ (26) throughout, like the sound of the sea. In a sense she is the sound of the sea, its siren-voice. Her invitations to Henry are almost sexual—and yet something else too. Her voice carries the promise of inevitable oblivion:


            Ada:     Underneath all is as quiet as the grave. Not a sound. All day, all night, not a sound.


            Henry:  Now I walk about with the gramophone. But I forgot it today.

            Ada:     There is no sense in that. (Pause.) There is no sense in trying to drown it. (34)


She even makes ‘jokes’:


            Ada:     Who were you with just now? (Pause.) Before you spoke

                         to me.

            Henry : I was trying to be with my father.

            Ada:     Oh. (Pause.) No difficulty about that. (p.35)


It is against such insinuations that Henry sets the thudding stones of the real, solid identity he aspires to. His aspiration is heroic in its pertinacity, as well as occasionally absurd, for everything and everyone, even his ‘wife,’ seems intent on luring him into the ‘lips and claws.’ This is the central dynamic of the play: the struggle between Henry’s constant desire for a ‘hard’ differentiation of identity and the insidious but seductive pull (or sucking) of ‘oceanic’ dedifferentiation which finds its low remote voice in Ada.


We have been considering the Embers sea by the side of passages in which two modern writers use in metaphoric form the ancient idea of the sea as creative element or agent of rebirth—Ehrenzweig in his psychological theory of artistic creation and Yeats in his impressionistic critical view of Modernism (with his account of his own creative state). The Beckettian sea seems to be in complete contrast: although, as Hersh Zeifman’s explication of the end of the play suggests, Beckett is well aware of the traditional connections of the sea with creativity, his sea in Embers is felt to be almost actively hostile to the central character’s creative endeavour. It is, in fact, anti-creative. Yet it is for this very reason that it can be regarded, though in a harshly ironic light, as a major element in the creative process. For without his sea Henry would presumably have no need to create. In the dialectical sense, it is the prime mover of his invention, and as such takes an important place in the dynamic of the play. It is, we might say, the reason why he is ‘obliged to express.’


We have reached what I think must be considered the core of the play. It is not easy to grasp properly because it is realized almost entirely by means of the image. What Beckett said of Denis Devlin’s poetry in 1938 can be applied to Embers:


It is naturally in the image that this profound and abstruse self-consciousness first emerges with the least loss of integrity. To cavil at Mr. Devlin’s form as over-imaged (the obvious polite cavil) is to cavil at the probity with which the creative act has carried itself out . . . and indeed to suggest that the creative act should burke its own conditions for the sake of clarity.41


The polarisation of ‘probity’ and ‘clarity’ (art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear . . .’42) is prompted by a nagging awareness of the ‘obvious polite cavil.’ However, in affirming the ‘probity with which the creative act has carried itself out’ (not, notice, ‘has been carried out’) in Embers, in emphasising its dogged adherence to the image as the least inadequate approach to the ineffable, we need not apologise for any absence of clarity. The ‘real centre’ of the play is defined by its symbolic organisation, the ‘logic’ of its images. I believe this needs saying about Embers, if only because good critics have neglected or misrepresented it, and yet in saying it I am conscious that, if this is all there were to the play, the present interpretation would probably never have been necessary in the first place. By the time Embers appeared the kind of criticism which so tenaciously sought, approved and labelled such principles as ‘symbolic organisation’ was already past its zenith. Poems more puzzling than this play is had long been brilliantly decoded and dealt with. Were Embers an orthodox example of ‘play as dramatic poem’ it would no doubt long ago have been ‘covered,’ however difficult it might have seemed at first, in such a way as to render any further interpretation (as distinct from critical estimate) unnecessary. Thus the very absence of an adequate critical treatment of the play, the fact from which we started, may itself be taken to suggest that, although Embers is demonstrably organised by way of symbolism and cumulative significant detail, it contains crucial structural elements over and above these and a dimension of meaning not usually found in the poem, play or novel with a ‘symbolic structure.’


This dimension is, I think, to be found in the high degree of self-consciousness which informs the structure of the play. Let us return for a moment to the religious theme pointed out by Hersh Zeifman. As we saw, this operates on an emblematic rather than a symbolic level, and in doing so it reminds us that the symbolic structure of Embers is to be seen as Henry’s as well as Beckett’s; its self-consciousness suggests an invention of the protagonist’s rather than a ‘secret meaning’ of the author’s. Thus the religious dimension of Henry’s story points again to the pivotal ambiguity of the whole play: how much of what the audience experiences is really Henry’s invention? Our examination has still not suggested the full extent of this ambiguity, which I take to be the extra element in or, perhaps better, surrounding the play’s structure. Consider the opening:


                        Sea scarcely audible.

                        HENRY’S boots on the shingle. He halts.

                        Sea a little louder.

            Henry:  On. (Sea. Voice louder.) On! (He moves on. Boots on

                        shingle. As he goes.) Stop. (Boots on shingle. As he

                        goes, louder.) Stop! (He halts. Sea a little louder.) Down.

                        (Sea. Voice louder.) Down! (Slither of shingle as he sits

                        . . .) (21)


The sea-sound is given (becoming progressively louder) and the sound of the ‘boots on shingle’ are introduced against it: is this perhaps not just another of the ‘hard’ sounds Henry needs to set against the sucking sea-sound? Is not the shingle another of his inventions? His instructions, ‘On! . . . Stop! . . . Down!,’ which we automatically assume to be exhortations to his body might after all be exhortations to his imagination. They resemble, we might feel, the orders of a director to his special-effects department. It is significant that the instructions come in pairs. The pattern recurs throughout the play:—the hooves, the drip, the slamming door, Bolton’s pleas, Bolton himself, Holloway, Ada, Christ, all are invoked in this way. Finally, if, as the recurring pattern hints, the shingle is Henry’s invention, what of the sea itself? Is this too imagined, but by a part of Henry’s mind over which he has no control? Clearly we may entertain the possibility that the whole ‘geography’ of the play is a fiction of the central consciousness rather than just an evocative background for the ‘action.’


What, in the light (or half-light) of these instabilities, are we to make of the story of family disruption which underlies Henry’s predicament, the train of events which led to the disappearance and probable suicide of his father? Is this really what happened to his father? ‘We never found your body, you know,’ remarks Henry, ‘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.’ The ‘for example’ introduces a note of self-consciousness which might go unnoticed were it not for Henry’s later plans to escape the sea-sound: ‘Get away from it! Where it couldn’t get at me! The Pampas! What?’ Henry’s father may be ‘in the Argentine for example’ and Henry himself thinks about escaping to the Pampas.43 To suggest an implicit indentification here of Henry with his father might be fanciful were it not for another, more telling detail. Henry addresses his ‘silent’ father: ‘You would never live this side of the bay, you wanted the sun on the water for that evening bathe you took once too often. But when I got your money I moved across, as perhaps you may know’ (22). Towards the end of the play Ada recalls Henry’s father ‘sitting on a rock looking out to sea,’ but Henry finds a geographical anomaly when he takes up the story: ‘Left soon afterwards, passed you on the road, didn’t see her, looking out to . . . (Pause.) Can’t have been looking out to sea (Pause.) Unless you had gone round the other side. (Pause.) Had you gone round the cliff side? (Pause.) Father! (Pause.) Must have I suppose’ (37). It is Ada’s subtlest ploy: by sending Henry’s father round the cliff side in her account, she identifies him with Henry, who (perhaps in a gesture of independence) is now apparently living on that side of the bay. She seems to be trying to induce in Henry his father’s resignation just before the suicide, a resignation which combines in its physical manifestation the solidity Henry craves with the impending loss of consciousness he fears: ‘Perhaps just the stillness, as if he had been turned to stone’ (36; my emphasis). And later: ‘Perhaps, as I said, just the stillness of the whole body, as if all the breath had left it’ (37). By the end of the play the identification of Henry and the fictional father is almost complete. Ada has described the sea (ending with a phrase familiar from Henry’s story): ‘Underneath all is quiet as the grave. Not a sound. All day, all night, not a sound’ (34); Henry’s last words echo her: ‘Nothing, all day nothing. (Pause.) All day all night nothing. (Pause.) Not a sound.’ Finally we hear ‘sea,’ nothing else.


What is the implication of the identification of Henry with his father? Embers opens with Henry trying to be with his father, ‘an old man, blind and foolish . . . Simply back from the dead to be with me in this strange place . . . Just be with me’ (21). As their names suggest, Ada and Addie may not be wife and daughter at all, not even imagined wife and daughter, only father-surrogates: Ada is a near anagram of Dad and Addie a rhyme for Daddie. And Henry himself? Is he perhaps just another of the fictional characters? Ruby Cohn notes that ‘Henry is a name derived from German Heimrih, meaning head of the family’44 he too is a father or father or father-surrogate—his own. Why should the figure of the father loom so large in every element of the play? Because the father, the head of the family, is its creator, and it is creation which is Henry’s obligation, or to put it more precisely, the obligation of the imperfect consciousness whose creator-surrogate ‘Henry’ is. ‘Henry’ is, in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s phrase, a ‘provisional being,’45 the ‘existence by proxy’46 of the creator who is obliged to create himself.


Yet to conclude in such a way would be to lose sight of the ambiguity upon which, as Beckett himself pointed out, Embers rests. I have emphasised the more stylised, self-conscious elements of the play because these lead us more readily to the core of the work—its concern with the creative-ontological obligation—but the complementary emphasis needs to be made on the elements of realism. The realism of Embers is important for the critic because it is important to Henry. His ability to maintain the realistic otherness of Ada, and indeed of the silent father who is his imagined audience for part of the play, serves as an index of his creative power. When these ‘other’ presences desert him and he is finally left alone with his own voice, unable even to evoke the coconut-shell hooves, he knows that the end is approaching. It is the Not I situation in embryonic form. Not I but He or She or They. The aim of Henry the ‘artist’ in multiplying the voices is indeed exactly this: realism. His need is to objectify himself and the Other, to make himself and his creations real.


We took as our starting point Beckett’s own observation about Embers. Clas Zilliacus also notes it, but contends that ‘the ambiguity of Embers . . . can hardly be central to the work, as its author claims,’ because ‘some of Ada’s lines . . . must make most listeners assume that she is present in Henry’s mind rather than “on the strand” .’47 Yet her voice, though very different in intonation, inescapably exists in the same aural dimension as Henry’s (and ought to in any production). If this is so, why should his voice really be any more substantial a proof of ‘existence’ than hers? And are their sounding voices any more potent than the silent presence of Henry’s father ‘in this strange place’ in the opening minutes of the play? (This is one of the work’s weirdest effects.) ‘Le personnage a-t-il une hallucination ou est-il en présence de la réalité?’ As we have seen, even ‘le personnage’ himself can be regarded as a kind of ‘hallucination.’ We might recall Yeats’s description of Modernist Nature as ‘a flux where a man drowned or swam’ and where the poet, swimmer-become-wave, cries ‘ “the flux is in my own mind.”’ If the object has dissolved, how can the subject remain solid? In Beckett’s own words, ‘if the object appears as an unstable term of relation, the artist, who is the other term, is hardly less so.’ Presenting as it does the tenacious but futile struggle of a consciousness for survival and towards identity amidst both outer and inner flux, Embers embodies the central Beckettian preoccupation.


1 Samuel Beckett: a critical study London, John Calder, 1962, 174.

2 Beckett and broadcasting: a study of the works of Samuel Beckett for and in radio and television, Åbo, Åbo Akademi, 1976, 76-99.

3 ‘The Space and the Sound in Beckett’s Theatre’ in Beckett the shape changer: a symposium, ed. Katharine Worth, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975, 185-218.

4 ‘Trials in the soundscape: the radio plays of Samuel Beckett,’ Modern drama, 11, 1968, 267-82.

5 ‘Religious imagery in the plays of Samuel Beckett,’ in Samuel Beckett: a collection of criticism, ed. Ruby Cohn, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1975, 85-94.

6 ‘Samuel Beckett’s Embers: a matter of fundamental sounds,’ Modern drama, 13, 1970, 216-25.

7Ember and the sea: Beckettian intimations of mortality,’ Modern drama, 16, 1973, 317-28.

8 Critical study, loc. cit.

9 Samuel Beckett, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976, 98.

10 Beckett, London, Oliver & Boyd, 1964, 102.

11 Quoted in Beckett and broadcasting, 76.

12 Quoted in ibid., 83.

13 Krapp’s last tape and Embers, London, Faber and Faber, 1959, 21. All references, cited parenthetically in text, are to this edition.

14 Compare ‘The Vulture’ in Echo’s bones (1935):

      dragging his hunger through the sky

      of my skull shell of sky and earth

Himself a scavenger of narrative ‘rubbish,’ Henry too imagines a ‘skull shell’ (see below). Birds of prey are a recurring motif in Beckett’s work. Their qualities are those to which the terminal artist must aspire. Here, for example, is Malone on Sapo:

      But he loved the flight of the hawk and could distinguish it from all others. He would stand rapt, gazing at the long pernings, the quivering poise, the wings lifted for the plummet drop, the wild reascent, fascinated by such extremes of need, of pride, of patience and solitude. (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, London, Calder and Boyars, 1959, 191.)

15 A portrait of the artist as a young man (1916) Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1960, 213.

16 The diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-23, ed. Max Brod. trans. Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg (1949) Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1964, 397-8.

17 Zeifman, 96.

18 Ibid., 92.

19 For ‘you’ the French version (by Beckett and Robert Pinget) has ‘on.’

20 Quoted by Zilliacus in ‘Samuel Beckett’s Embers,’ 221.

21 Tennyson (Trowbridge, Macmillan, 1972), 249.

22 There is also an interesting coincidence of fact concerning the two works: Embers was written in 1959, 26 years after Beckett’s own father’s death; Maud was written in 1854-5, 23 years after Tennyson’s father’s death. (In Krapp the son plays back the tape of his mother’s death 30 years after the event.) It is intriguing to note that ‘within a week after his father’s death [Tennyson] slept in the dead man’s bed, earnestly desiring to see his ghost, but no ghost came. “You see”, he said, “ghosts do not come to imaginative people” .’ (Hallam Lord Tennyson, Materials for a life of Alfred Tennyson, draft version. Quoted by Ricks in Tennyson, 28.)

23 Tennyson, 2.

24 Tennyson, 253. This suggestion of the bleeding woman has been taken up by Jonathan Wordsworth in ‘What is it, that has been done? : The Central Problem of Maud,’ Essays in Criticism, 24, 1974, 356-62.

25 Endgame, London, Faber and Faber, 1958, 35.

26 Anon., ‘The Dying of the Light,’ Times literary supplement, 8 January 1960, 20.

27 James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), London, Bodley Head, 1960, 3.

28 Maddy Rooney remembers ‘one of those new mind doctors’ lecturing on a little girl patient: ‘The trouble with her was she had never been really born!’ (All that fall, London, Faber and Faber, 1957, 36-7); and Malone feels he is ‘far already from the world that parts at last its labia and lets me go.’ ‘Yes,’ he affirms, ‘an old foetus, that’s what I am now, hoar and impotent, mother is done for, I’ve rotted her, she’ll drop me with the help of gangrene, perhaps papa is at the party too, I’ll land head-foremost mewling in the charnel-house, not that I’ll mewl, not worth it.’ ‘The feet are clear already, of the great cunt of existence’ (Trilogy, 190, 226, 285). The phrase ‘never been properly born’ is buried in the ‘Addenda’ of Watt (1953; London, Calder and Boyars, 1963, 248); and the idea is surely present in the climactic image of Godot: ‘Astride of a grave and a difficult birth’ (Waiting for Godot, London, Faber and Faber, 1956, 90). Beckett spoke to Lawrence E. Harvey of ‘a presence, embryonic, undeveloped, of a self that might have been but never got born, an être manqué’ (Samuel Beckett: poet and critic, Princeton, N.J., Princeton UP, 1970, 249); and he explained to Hildegard Schmahl, the first German May in Footfalls (Tritte), with reference to the ‘new mind doctor’ C.G. Jung and the lecture he had made Mrs. Rooney speak of, that ‘this girl wasn’t living. She existed but didn’t actually live.’ (See Walter D. Asmus, ‘Practical aspects of theatre, radio and television,’ trans. Helen Watanabe, Journal of Beckett studies, No. 2, Summer 1977, 83-4.)

29 From Civilisation and its discontents. (Complete psychological works, trans. James Strachey and Anna Freud, London, Hogarth Press, 1961, vol. 21. 68.)

30 ‘I may remark that to me this seems something rather in the nature of an intellectual perception, which is not, it is true, without an accompanying feeling-tone, but only such as would be present with any other act of thought of equal range. From my own experience I could not convince myself of the primary nature of such a feeling.’ Loc. cit.

31 For example, Alpaugh finds that Henry’s consciousness is ‘infantile,’ ‘his sense of a private self . . . hypertrophied and over-defined, the boundaries of his ego having been too tightly drawn through a revulsion to the omnipresent sea of anti-self’ (‘Embers and the sea,’ 320). The Embers sea seems to attract psychoanalytical interpretations. There is also John Fletcher’s Oedipal approach in ‘Interpreting Molloy,’ Samuel Beckett now, ed. Melvin J. Friedman, London, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970, 163.

32 The hidden order of art : a study in the psychology of artistic imagination, St. Albans, Paladin, 1970, 304.

33 The narrator of the story refers to it, with a good dose of irony, as ‘this strong composition,’ More pricks than kicks (1934), London, Pan, 1974, 57.

34 Zeifman, 93.

35 Concepts of criticism, ed. Stephen G. Nichols Jr., London, Yale UP, 1963, 220.

36 Introduction to The Oxford book of modern verse 1892-1935, chosen by W.B. Yeats, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1936, xxviii. Reprinted in W.B. Yeats, Selected criticism, London, Pan, 1976, 228.

37 ‘Introduction to Fighting the waves’ in Explorations, London, Macmillan, 1962, 373.

38 Proust and Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit, London, John Calder, 1965, 124.

39 Loc. cit. The ‘fodient rodent’ is from the sketch Radio II (broadcast as Rough for radio) in Ends and odds, London, Faber and Faber, 1977. Here a creature called Fox (Vox?) speaks of tunnelling for his goal, ‘age upon age, up again, down again, little lichens of my little span, living dead in the stones’ (99). The artist (or creator) as excavator or burrower is another Beckettian leitmotif. In Proust he speaks of ‘the labours of poetical excavation’ (29) and states that ‘the only fertile research is excavatory, immersive, a contraction of the spirit, a descent’ (65). He told the actress Elizabeth Bergner that he was ‘not looking for answers: I am only trying to dig a little deeper’ (interview with Elizabeth Bergner, BBC Radio 3, July 1977); and he spoke to Lawrence E. Harvey ‘of the attempt to find [the] lost self in images of getting down, getting below the surface, concentrating, listening, getting your ear down so you can hear the infinitesimal mumur. There is a gray struggle, a groping in the dark for a shadow’ (Poet and critic, 247). The decisive comment comes in The unnamable: ‘Are there other pits, deeper down? To which one accedes by mine [a pun?]? Stupid obsession with depth’ (Trilogy, 295).

40 ‘A general introduction for my work’ in Essays and introductions, London, Macmillan, 1961, 524. Yeats is describing his mental state when speaking blank verse—especially that of his own earlier plays (‘For Deirdre and Cuchulain and all the other figures of Irish legend are still in the whale’s belly,’ 525). But that his image applies also to the creative state itself is I think clear. Later in the same essay he says that Mallarmé ‘had topped a previous wave’ and that the young English poets of the ‘thirties ‘attempt to kill the whale’ by ignoring ‘what the Upanishads call “that ancient Self”’ (525-6).

41 ‘Denis Devlin,’ transition, 27 (1938), 293.

42 Loc. cit.

43 The BBC broadcast script, which preceded the text published by Faber, had ‘Venezuela’ for ‘the Argentine’ and ‘Tibet’ for ‘The Pampas.’ Of the latter change, Clas Zilliacus notes that Elmar Tophoven informed him ‘that the change was made because SB wanted to avoid undue topical associations with the Dalai Lama’ (Beckett and broadcasting, 89). This accounts for one of the alterations but it does not indicate why he specifically chose ‘the Argentine’ and ‘The Pampas’ (where Henry would hear hooves and more hooves). Since the Pampas is in the Argentine and Tibet is not in Venezuela, and since Mr. Beckett would not be unaware of this fact, what becomes significant is the geographical relation between the places: having changed ‘Tibet’ to ‘The Pampas’ why then change ‘Venezuela’ to ‘the Argentine’? I would contend that the geographical tie-up, like most of Beckett’s internal correspondences, is more than just a mechanical device. And in any case if one thing is emerging from the fast-growing study of Beckett’s composition processes it is that his second thoughts are invariably better—more refined and more careful - than his first.

44 Samuel Beckett : the comic gamut, New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers UP, 1962, 250.

45 See ‘Samuel Beckett, or “Presence” in the Theatre’ in Samuel Beckett: a collection of critical essays, ed. Martin Esslin, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965, 115.

46 The phrase is Beckett’s own. Lawrence E. Harvey reports his using it ‘repeatedly’ in conversation (Poet and critic, 247).

47 Beckett and broadcasting, 83.