16th Feb 2016
One of Samuel Beckett’s most acclaimed and accessible plays, All That Fall is also one of his least known. The writer’s friend and biographer Jim Knowlson explains why – and why it is “too good, too funny and too moving” to be left on the shelf.
When Beckett’s first radio play was broadcast in 1957, Roy Walker wrote in The Tribune that ‘All that Fall is, I insist, the most important and irresistible new play for radio since Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood three Januaries ago.’
Inspired by boyhood memories of his native village of Foxrock, County Dublin, it is certainly one of Beckett’s most accessible plays but it is not nearly as well known as his stage works. Radio plays are rarely re-recorded or indeed replayed, and because Beckett was firmly opposed to the live staging of his radio plays, it has only occasionally been performed in theatres.
His letters to friends reveal clearly why he did not want it to be staged. To his American publisher Barney Rosset, he wrote that the play was ‘a radio text, for voices, not bodies’, commenting ‘it is no more theatre than Endgame is radio and to “act” it is to kill it.’ In fact, it depended, he added, on ‘coming out of the dark’ for any quality it had, saying ‘frankly the thought of All that Fall on a stage, however discreetly, is intolerable to me.’
In 1963 he refused the eminent Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman permission to stage it with another of his radio plays Embers. He refused his favored American director, Alan Schneider, writing in 1974 that the play ‘is really for radio only’.
He even held out against Laurence Olivier.
When he allowed his friend Deryk Mendel, to stage a production in Berlin in 1966, he thought what he was authorizing was a straightforward reading. Mendel once admitted to me privately that he was ‘praying to God that Sam wouldn’t see any photographs, as I rather cheated on it, you see’.
He agreed to a film because he understood it would be directed by Alain Resnais whose documentary about the Holocaust had thought “very fine”. But he bitterly regretted the ‘disastrous results’ of the eventual television version broadcast on ORTF in 1963, directed by Michel Mitrani.
However, he sometimes referred to the changes that would be required if it were to be staged, and so it may be that, given time and a director whose work he respected, he might just have relented, as he did in many other cases. If Alain Resnais had gone ahead and made a success of the transfer from radio to film, his attitude to a staging in the theatre might have altered. We shall never know.
Since Beckett’s death, the literary executor and the Beckett Estate have continued to oppose the staging of All That Fall. One or two variants have been allowed. Trevor Nunn’s 2012 production at the 70 seat Jermyn Street Theatre simulated a radio production, with microphones and sound effects visible as if the audience were evesdropping on a recording. In 2011, the Irish theatre company Pan Pan sat its audience in rocking chairs, naked light bulbs above them like stars, but with most of the play taking place in the dark.
The most fully staged production was the late Bill Gaskill’s, with RADA students in 2008. In a thrilling production, no-one pretended that they were part of anything other than an imagined theatrical world. Mime, caricature and farce ruled and though there were young actors aged artificially by make-up, there was no insistence on making them look convincingly old. It was authorized as a ‘one-off’ and non-commercial production, and Gaskill himself was turned down when he wanted to restage it.
One can understand why Beckett did not want to ‘mix his media’: he had specifically chosen what he thought would work on the radio. In this light, Max Stafford-Clark’s idea of giving the spectators eye masks is a genial one. The audience remains free to imagine Mrs Rooney as, in her own words, ‘a big fat jelly’; and the various picturesque characters she encounters on her way to the railway station live in the mind’s eye as distinctive figures through their voices only.
Max’s other key idea is that the actors move around and among the spectators. This shift in the location and direction from which the voices come creates a fascinating aural landscape: Mrs Rooney can at one moment be quite distant from you, at another very close, perhaps even resting in a nearby vacant chair; blind Dan Rooney’s stick taps past you on the return journey from Boghill station once his train has delivered him there after its significant and ominous delay.
With a live audience present to respond collectively, the play emerges as even funnier than it did on the radio; yet its dark themes of death and dissolution still come through.
Does All that Fall have a future on stage? Opinions will vary on this and whether indeed it should, but approaches such as Max’s are to be welcomed as a way of introducing newcomers to areas of Beckett’s writing that are less well known than Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape or Happy Days.
The play is just too good, too funny and too moving to remain the sole preserve of the scholar.
Jim Knowlson is Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Reading. He was a friend of Samuel Beckett for 19 years and is the author of many books on his theatre. He also wrote his biography, ‘Damned to Fame. The Life of Samuel Beckett’ (London: Bloomsbury, 1996).