Radio Beckett

Radio plays were a short-lived literary genre that nonetheless managed to leave many touchstones of lasting impact. While mostly forgotten today, the powerful radio adaptation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, performed by Orson Welles in 1938, struck panic in hundreds of thousands who, tuning in after the introduction, believed Martians were attacking Earth. On the other hand, Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, which he finished composing moments before entering the studio, remains his single most famous work even today. Seeing Kaliyuga Arts's excellent new production of Samuel Beckett's radio play All That Fall (originally written in English for BBC radio), one can appreciate the possibilities of the lost medium—the seductions of pure sound and the way silence becomes existentially equivalent to death, or dead air.

Although presented as a live radio broadcast—complete with 1950's-style squared-off, oversized studio microphones and a mammoth antique radio that faces out to the audience, the production visually entertains with its large ensemble of actors producing an assortment of sound effects. Many of those effects, in fact, come from the actors themselves. Bucolic moos, bleats, and barks, along with plenty of barnyard clucks, crowing, and coos, make for an entertaining and funny backdrop to the main story.

Mrs. Rooney (voiced with a rollicking lilt by Helen Calthorpe) takes the long walk to the train station to meet her husband, running into various country eccentrics along the way. Mr. Slocum (Matt Walker) offers her a ride in his beat-up, hand-cranked jalopy. While struggling to get the top down, Mr. Slocum and Mrs. Rooney erupt in such a fit of heavy breathing, huffing, and straining that the scene has rightly been dubbed "audial pornography."

When Mrs. Rooney arrives at the station, quite late, her husband's train has not arrived yet—there's been a "hitch." Finally, after some commotion amid the impatient passengers on the platform, it does arrive, and she meets her blind spouse.

Mr. Rooney (Rand Mitchell, who was in Beckett's original production of Ohio Impromptu) is a senile old gentleman, a classic Beckett ne'er-do-well who quips, "Did you ever know me to be well?" and sighs, "If I could go deaf and dumb, I might live to be a hundred." The irony is that Mr. Rooney—who can't even count the number of steps on the stairs to his house, though counting, he claims, is one of the great joys of his life—probably already is 100.

The couple saunter back home, ruminating on where they're going in life—the running joke being that we're clearly all going to the grave. Mrs. Rooney enigmatically mentions babies dead before they were ever born, meditating on her general sense of sterility. The play ends in the same spot it began, where the "hitch" that stalled the train is revealed.

Though they all share a bit of Irish brogue, the cast members have distinctive sonorous qualities to their voices—gruff or nasal, twangy or sweet, grating or smooth—that perfectly suit their character. Director John Sowle's precise orchestration of the whole medley of voices and sound effects produces a kind of poetry that truly does, at times, ascend to music.

What more fitting play to commemorate what would have been Beckett's own 100th birthday? Even if Beckett, the man, has passed on into dead air, we can be assured from productions like this one that his oeuvre's haunting voice will remain alive for quite some time to come, even amid our culture's contemporary static.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post