The Ghasty Impermanence: Beckett in the Sandbox

Photo Credit: JuditK.Licensed CC-BY-ND.
Photo Credit: JuditK.
Licensed CC-BY-ND.

Many theater people claim to love Samuel Beckett’s work yet are constantly disappointed that the Beckett estate does not allow Beckett’s radio work to be adapted to theater. The notion behind this suggests two things:

One, that theatrical production would be somehow reach a greater audience. This is an obviously ridiculous notion, since plays broadcast on Radio 3 (or the Third Programme, as it was in Beckett’s time) regularly had audiences of more than 150,000 people.

Two, that theatrical production would somehow be more noble or legitimate than the sordid, forgotten, dirty bastard medium of radio.

The second point, I think, is even more ridiculous than the first. The attitude would be patronizing if it weren’t fully idiotic. Beckett wrote pieces for radio–none of them did he even call a play, save his very first one. They rely upon the nature of audio drama for their exploration but also for their power. Anyone who thinks that Cascando or Embers would have any effect on stage at all is clueless about what makes the pieces work. These are audio pieces, pieces written to exploit the unique power of audio to present the incorporeal directly to the imagination.

While the Sandbox Radio group have been doing works for podcast for quite sometime, their productions still often carry the baggage of its producers’ experience in theater, baggage which constantly threatens to sink them.

Their production of Words and Music is an object lesson. In what other medium could there be two characters called “Words” and “Music” that immediately presented themselves to a listener as pure sound? That existence in pure sound is not simply a technique for dramatic flair, it is the basis for all the drama in the piece. More than anything, the piece is about the struggle of words and music to co-exist.

The direction of the onstage action here muddles this from the beginning. First, Music is reduced to one person, instead of the small orchestra Beckett specifies. This suggests that Words and Music are equals. They are not. As Beckett remarked to Katharine Worth about the play in British Radio Drama, “Music always wins.” Not only does music always win, it is not even a remotely fair fight. At any time, Music should be able to overwhelm Words, with volume as well as with power. Reducing Music to a single character, and a cello at that, enfeebles this power.

Furthermore, at the beginning of the evening, as one sits in the theater before Words and Music proper has even begun, there is a hustle-bustle of the sound folks setting up and actors taking their places. This is not extraordinary. What is extraordinary is that the play specifies the first line as being “Small orchestra tuning up,” to which Words responds “Please…Please!…How much longer cooped up in the dark…with you!” Here the directors have allowed the voices of the sound crew and stagehands to enter into the fray, to the point where Words actually directs his speech at them. Bad idea. First, it’s illogical. Since Words and Music are supposed to be the servants of Croak, who is presumably a poet of some sort, any voices would belong either to Words or to Music by definition. Second, it weakens the theme severely by misdirecting the conflict.

There are other roughnesses in the piece that suggest to me the directors value humor via overstatement over any other quality. I’m not convinced. Not because I think Beckett is humorless–he most certainly isn’t–but rather because it prohibits the final pathos. Again, the situation is that Croak has words and music under his command–Words even refers to him repeatedly as “my lord.” Beckett notes several times in the text that he is “anguished.” Yet Seanjohn Walsh plays him not as anguished but rather as a milquetoast who may never move on from a memory of “postcoital recuperation” as Clas Zilliacus once delicately phrased it. The complete lack of delicacy within Mr. Walsh’s performance makes the conflict between Words and Music even muddier than it is.

I have seen this problem arise numerous times in American productions of Beckett. Instead of evoking the mindscape of a deeply conflicted, fragile yet all too sane human being, American productions treat the internal world as inherently suspicious, and the mindscape as deranged. Compare the Sandbox version of Words and Music to either of the UK productions or the RTE Radio 1 version. Even more obviously in the Beckett canon, compare the versions of Cascando (the piece Beckett wrote after Words and Music) by BBC or the two Irish versions with the version by Theatre for Your Mother and the point becomes poniard-sharp.

The same problem affects All That Fall as well, though mercifully to a lesser degree. On the surface, the piece is more “theatrical”–which is to say it has more of a narrative surface. But even this is problematic. As Beckett himself wrote:

All That Fall is specifically a 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 Endgame 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.

That reduced visual dimension is an issue with the Sandbox production. The piece is ultimately about making the invisible visible through sound. In this case, a pivotal and important theme is the disembodiment of Maddy Rooney. Jokes in the script revolve around her not being seen. She describes herself as “two hundred pounds of unhealthy fat” and moans throughout the play that she wishes she were only atoms–or soundwaves.

Looking up and seeing the extremely beautiful and rather slight Marianne Owen mouthing these words shatters any illusion that she could represent this woman in any way. I finally had to close my eyes and simply listen, or I’d never have been able to concentrate.

With its veneer of narrative, All That Fall is closer than any other Beckett radio piece to “theater.” Because of this, the Sandbox players are in their element. Though Beckett’s words work against the dry naturalism with which the piece is directed, Evan Mosher’s sound design and the rather peculiar sounds themselves also help keep the play from getting altogether too silly. The tendency of the players to “act” is still too strong, but just as in the battle of Words and Music music always wins, in the battle between Playwright and Cast, Beckett wins. After all, I can always close my eyes.

Categories Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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