Embers by Samuel Beckett (1959)

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.
(Ada in Embers)

Embers is a radio play which Samuel Beckett wrote in English in 1957, specially for one of his favourite actors, Jack MacGowran. It was first broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 24 June 1959 and won the RAI prize at the Prix Italia awards later that year. You can listen to the original BBC production on YouTube, featuring Jack MacGowran as the main narrator, Henry, with Kathleen Michael as the ghostly figure of Ada, and Patrick Magee (who we have recently viewed in his performance in Krapp’s Last Tape) making brief appearances as the Riding Master and Music Master.

Many critics consider this a weak work and Beckett himself thought it didn’t come off, but I think it’s much better than his previous radio play, 1957’s All That Fall.

Plot summary

The narrator is a typical Beckett figure, an old man who seems to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, tramping across shingle near the sea (which we hear throughout, in the background), sharing a jumble of memories, sense impressions, worries about his father, how he disappeared without trace, he remembers an argument when his father, for the umpteenth time, called him a useless ‘washout’, and so on.

Henry remembers how he tried to write stories, one about a fellow named Bolton, never finished it, one scene featured Bolton standing in his pyjamas in front of the fire, ‘an old man in great trouble’ (which could stand as the motto of almost every Beckett character), as another character named Holloway rides up to the house, enters, comes into the room in his wet galoshes…

He remembers scenes from his boyhood, his harsh father shouting at him to come outside in the rain, help with the lambs, shouting at the boy when he refuses. He remembers Ada, whose voice replies, faintly and from a great distance and then takes part in a dialogue as if her spirit has been raised from the dead. Ada fusses about him sitting on the cold stones. He asks if she can hear the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. She mildly says his laugh used to attract her, and he ejaculates a horrible strangulated laugh in mockery of his own softness. But we can tell how damaged he is.

Henry and Ada discuss their daughter Addie, and the play promptly dramatises two incidents when Addie was a girl a) when she plays some wrong notes on the piano and the piano master yells at her in a crescendo of shouting – which segues into b) a memory of Addie trying to ride a horse and suffering similar shouting abuse from a riding master.

As an indication of his present decrepitness, Henry tells (is it the ghost of Ada?) he’ll have a go at walking across the shingle to the sea, and back again. He barely gets ten steps before he is overcome by another memory, of himself when young, the roar of the sea and young Ada crying out ‘Don’t! Don’t!’ Was he trying to drown her? Or taking some kind of risk with the sea? Is that how she died, because the listener can tell that Ada is now some kind of pallid spirit.

Henry is harsh and rude to Ada but when she announces she is leaving, is overcome with panic and begs her to stay, to help him eke out the moments of his existence – but she slips away, leaving him alone, an old man on a desolate beach.

Reflections

It is the mental landscape of an old man whose mind is going, along with his ability to form entire sentences. Instead he uses Beckettesque and Pinteresque snatches of phrases, repeated, fragmented, punctuated by gaps and silences and pauses. Indeed, pause is the most frequent word in the script.

No good either. [Pause.]
Not there either. [Pause.]
Try again. [Pause.]

The text is like incantations he is repeating to try and drown out, to smother ‘it’. On the face of it ‘it’ refers to the sounds of the sea, because Ada questions why he comes down to the sea if all he wants is to drown out the sound of the sea, why does he ‘listen to it.’

But by dint of Beckett’s main literary technique, which is exhaustive repetition of a handful of themes and phrases, the word ‘it’ comes to mean something bigger, incorporating what appear to be horrible memories of his daughter, Addie, suffering; whatever incident it was with Ada near the sea; memories of his father being a brute, and many more entirely negative memories and emotions.

All told in fragments, repeated swirling fragments of language, shreds of memory blowing like dead leaves in a cold winter wind. The ‘it’ he is trying to repress, but seems helplessly attracted to, comes to signify all the inescapable memories of his life, the sum total of his life and experiences, swirling swirling…

The repetitions of key phrases create a tremendous mood. No good. Not a sound. White world. Washout. I can’t do it anymore. Christ. White world. Not a sound. No good.

And, in this production, the text is accompanied by a wonderfully haunting soundscape created maybe by an organ or early electronic instrument, a note which rises and falls in the background like the endless surf. It makes the play a great deal more listenable and cocoons the script in a kind of aural warmth, providing an eerie backdrop to MacGowran’s often harsh, strangulated voice.

Skullscapes

I am delighted to learn that Beckett scholars refer to this kind of work – the extended soliloquy of ‘an old man in great trouble’, decorated with all Beckett’s usual verbal usual tricks and themes – as a skullscape, because we don’t know if any of the other characters exist outside the narrator’s mind, whether or not it’s all happening entirely within his skull. Ada predicts that eventually:

You will be quite alone with your voice, there will be no other voice in the world but yours.

But maybe he has actually reached that stage already, a condition of ultimate solipsism where there is no outside world and he is alone, trapped inside a mind made up of snatches and fragments of memory, all of them baleful and painful.

It feels to me that none of these plays do or could go any further than Beckett’s mid-period novel, The Unnamable (1953), in deconstructing the very idea of a narrator, of narratives and even of language itself. That novel is absolutely central to understanding Beckett. It contains the seeds of pretty much everything which followed (except maybe from some of the wordless mimes or choreographs such as Quad).

Many of these plays feel like excerpts or offcuts from The Beckett Trilogy, little more than expansions and elaborations of basic ideas and techniques Beckett had perfected in his prose, and then set about exploring in the (admittedly very different) medium of drama (not just the stage, as he also wrote radio plays and TV plays).

It is most particularly Beckettian whenever the narrator makes it clear he’s making up stories and people to talk to, in order simply to keep on going, to survive. Here he is ten minutes or so into Embers:

Stories, stories, years and years of stories, till the need came on me, for someone, to be with m e, anyone, a stranger, to talk to, imagine he hears me, years of that, and then, now for someone who… knew me in the old days, anyone, to be with me, imagine he hears me, what I am, now.

That is more or less the method of Malone (whose ‘novel’ consists entirely of ‘stories’ he is making up and telling himself to pass the time until he dies, in Malone Dies) and of the unnamable, who is also making up people and stories in order to keep going, though he doesn’t know why, or doesn’t understand why he is compelled to go on, keep on, make words, make speech in order to go on. As Ada’s spirit threatens to depart, Henry suddenly panics and begs her to stay:

Keep on, keep on! Keep it going, Ada, every syllable is a second gained.

I think it is a powerful and haunting work. Beckett may not have liked it because it is such a naked repetition of themes he had covered at such great length in the prose works. But that’s half the reason I like it, because the theme of struggling on is so very powerful, and because there is something oddly comforting in the sheer dogged repetitiveness with which Beckett obsessively describes the sheer dogged repetitiveness of his characters who all feel, in the end, like the same character, saying the same thing, endlessly…

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…


Credit

Embers by Samuel Beckett was written in 1957 and broadcast on the BBC in June 1959.

Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

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