Words and Music by Samuel Beckett (1961)

Another work from Samuel Beckett’s ‘radio phase’, when he experimented with the possibilities of radio between about 1956 and 1961. It’s a short text (just eight pages in the Faber Collected Shorter Plays) for voice and music, so it tells you a lot about the contribution of musical interludes and silences, that the fully dramatised piece stretches to over 40 minutes.

Characters

There are three entities or ‘characters, Words (who speaks a lot), Music (whose parts consist entirely of patches of music) and a human character named Croak. Right at the beginning, before Croak arrives, Words makes it plain he detests Music:

Music: How much longer cooped up here, in the dark? (With loathing.) With you!

Word tries to keep himself going by giving himself a topic for discourse, namely Sloth and rattling off a paragraph of bombastic nonsense on the subject, before breaking off because he can hear the ‘Distant sound of rapidly shuffling carpet slippers’.

Croak

Croak arrives. He apologises for arriving late, saying something about a face on the stairs. Croak appears to be a lofty impresario who gives subjects for Words (who he calls Joe and who, in reply, calls him ‘My lord’) and Music (who he calls Bob) to describe or embroider as if in a competition. At moments Croak shouts at them, calling them ‘dogs!’, at other moments calls them ‘my comforts’, ‘my balms’. At the beginning he tells them to be friends, reinforcing the impression given by Words’ opening words, that the two hate each other.

The competition of Words and Music

And then, as if at the start of a familiar routine, Croak gives them their first topic for the evening. First Words has his speeches, then Music makes its noise. Croak signals the change between each with the loud thump of a club, presumably on the floor.

After Words and Music have each had a go (accompanied by Croak’s groans and comments) one section is drawn to an end, and then Croak gives them another topic. The topics are:

  • Sloth (ad libbed by Words)
  • Love
  • Age

Morton Feldman’s music

‘Music’ is meant to produce actual music and various composers have risen to the challenge of writing music to represent the contribution of Music to the dialogue. In the original BBC radio production the music was written by Beckett’s cousin, John Beckett, who wrote the music for a number of Beckett’s productions.

The earliest version I can find is this production which features the music of Morton Feldman, the highly experimental avant-garde American composer. I’ve always liked Feldman’s music, it has a slowly penetrating, atonal, modernist simplicity, and its sparseness seems a perfect accompaniment for Beckett’s sparse words and scenario.

A twentieth century masque

Because I’ve been reading 17th century literature recently, this work strikes me as being a kind of twentieth century masque, in which allegorical Types compete for the favour of a judge or adjudicator, in just the same way that, in the classic 17th century masque, allegorical performances were put on for the enjoyment of the king himself (King James or King Charles), who were sometimes asked to display their wisdom and authority by deciding stylised debates between classical virtues or attributes.

Except that, it being the twentieth century and Beckett a writer of the absurd or of nihilistic futility, the words of Words are a meaningless farrago, a pastiche of Shakespearian eloquence whose booming clichés elicit only groans from his master, Croak.

‘What is this love that more than all the cursed deadly or any other of its great movers so moves the soul and soul what is this soul that more than by any of its great movers is by love so moved?’

It’s like a Shakespeare sonnet which has been put through a blender, grammatically it makes sense but has been deliberately mashed to sound like repetitious nonsense, making the rather obvious, schoolboy point that Shakespearean rhetoric comes from an age convinced of its own values and coherent worldview, whereas in our own oh-dear-so-disillusioned age, that kind of confidence and fluency is no longer possible. Alas and lackaday.

Sex

Sex is surprisingly present in many of Beckett’s works, albeit in deliberately harsh, absurdist and anti-romantic forms. Take the second part of Molloy, where Moran casually tells us about his masturbating, or the hint of BDSM sex in Murphy, the narrator of First Love having sex with Lulu, Sam having sex with every woman in the neighbourhood despite being confined to a wheelchair in Watt, references to gay sex and being ‘sucked off’ in Mercier and Camier, MacMann folding his penis up and trying to stuff it in Moll’s dried-up vagina in Malone Dies. Many of the prose texts go out of their way to use the rudest words possible, starting with bugger and shit and working up to the f word and the c word.

My point is we shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging sexual references or vocabulary just because it’s in Nobel Prize Winner. The opposite, he thoroughly enjoyed ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’ as Leslie Fiedler put it, with rancid descriptions of sex and the crudest sex words.

There’s another element which is the surprising presence of the memory of a love affair in Krapp’s Last Tape. Krapp obsessively repeats the memory of a moment when he lay with an unnamed young woman, his hand on her breast.

I don’t for a minute find it a moving memory. Beckett is anti-sentimental. I find it more interesting to entertain the notion that Beckett refined a rhetoric of paucity and impoverishment, of senility and forgetfulness, of mechanical repetitions, he created some great scenarios (man plays tapes of his younger self, woman buried up to her waits in sand who accepts it as perfectly normal, old man conjures Words and Music to compete with each other) but then doesn’t know what to do next and so resorts to sexual imagery and content.

Exactly as this play’s immediate predecessor, Rough For Radio II, starts out being about two characters supervising the violent torture of another but, about half way through, loses interest or gets distracted from the nominal theme, when the pretty young stenographer is asked to take off her overalls, when the torture supervisor orders her to kiss the torture victim and when the torture victim’s chief memories seem to be of a full, milky breast.

I find most of Beckett’s scenarios powerful and impressive, but am quite regularly disappointed by the lack of subject matter. Or the fact the two men in the bunker and the woman up to her waist in sand and, as here, the allegorical figures of Words and Music have so little to say for themselves. Are incapable of anything but tittle tattle and trivia, as when all Words can think of to describe Age is:

‘Huddled o’er . . . the ingle (Pause. Violent thump. Trying to sing.) Waiting for the hag to put the … pan … in the bed…’

Waiting for a hag to bring a bedpan, is that it? So I’m not surprised that, rather as Krapp’s Last Tape runs out of ideas and is forced to resort to a basically sexual memory of the young man lying with his hand on the woman’s breast, so Words and Music appears, similarly, to run out any ideas for content and resorts to… breasts.

… flare of the black disordered hair as though spread wide on water, the brows knitted in a groove suggesting pain but simply concentration more likely all things considered on some consummate inner process, the eyes of course closed in keeping with this, the lashes . . . (pause) . . . the nose … (pause) … nothing, a little pinched perhaps, the lips….. tight, a gleam of tooth biting on the under, no coral, no swell, whereas normally… the whole so blanched and still that were it not for the great white rise and fall of the breasts, spreading as they mount and then subsiding to their natural… aperture…

As a heterosexual man I am all in favour of heaving bosoms but their appearance in three of Beckett’s plays in a row suggests a pattern, one of the oldest writing strategies in the world… if you run out of inspiration, put boobs in it! Maybe you can dress it up quite considerably more academically than that, but that’s what it appears to boil down to – Beckett doesn’t have much to say, what he does have is either gibberish versions of Romantic rhetoric or pseudo-philosophical speculation, images of decrepitude and decay, or, to keep the thing going a little longer (which is, after all, THE central Beckett theme) sex, the most basic, primeval aspect of human nature. If it is a description of a woman’s young nubile body, then her natural… aperture, is obviously her ****.

Which brings me to my final point. We have heard Words describing the heaving bosom, and Croak cry out ‘Lily!’ as if Words is evoking a memory of a woman called Lily (so similar to the repeated memory of the woman’s breast in Krapp’s Last Tape). The final passages of Words and Music have Words repeating the same idea in the same phrases over and over again:

…the brows uncloud, the nostrils dilate, the lips part and the eyes … (pause) … a little colour comes back into the cheeks and the eyes (reverently) … open. (Pause.) Then down a little way (Pause. Change to poetic tone. Low.)
Then down a little way
Through the trash
To where … towards where…

Then down a little way
Through the trash
Towards where…

All dark no begging
No giving no words
No sense no need…

Then down a little way
Through the trash
Towards where
All dark no begging
No giving no words
No sense no need
Through the scum
Down a little way
To whence one glimpse

A glimpse of what, we wonder?

Through the scum
Down a little way
To where one glimpse
Of that wellhead.

What is a wellhead? ‘Wellhead is a general term used to describe the pressure-containing component at the surface of an oil well’ (Science Direct website). Pictures show it to be rather phallic in shape, and it contains pent-up, high-pressure liquid.

So is Words evoking a memory of a woman named Lily giving Croak a blowjob? Moving down, down, past the tummy fluff and pubic hair (the trash and scum) down to his pressure-containing equipment?

And is that why Croak drops his club, says nothing more, and shuffles off, thus ending the play? Is the memory of such unforced (‘No giving no words/No sense no need’) bliss too much for the old man to bear, just as the memory of young Krapp cupping a young woman’s breast in a field is too much for old Krapp to bear?

Long pauses

Maybe. But maybe the more dominant impression of hearing an actual production of Word and Music like this one is of the immense, yawning silences it contains. Pauses. Gaps. Emptinesses. You have to be in just the right mood, very attentive, totally engaged, in order to let the full tapestry of sounds and silence entrance you. Otherwise, all those silences run the risk of alienating the less engaged listener. And repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Beckett’s main literary technique. Beckett’s main literary technique.

The face. (Pause.) The face. (Pause.) The face. (Pause.) The face.


Credit

Words and Music by Samuel Beckett was written towards the end of 1961 and broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 13 November 1962.

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

Elizabethan Treasures @ the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition transports us back into the Elizabethan Age, the age of Shakespeare and Spenser, of pointy beards and intricate ruffs, to the soundtrack of exquisite lute music.

Lute music was one of the art forms Elizabethan England was recognised for across the Continent, its chief exponent, John Dowland, being poached by the king of Denmark to entertain his court in 1598.

The other art form which flourished in Elizabethan England was the very distinctive one of portrait miniatures, brought to a peak of perfection by two specialists, Nicholas Hilliard (1547? – 1619) and French-born Isaac Oliver (c.1565 – 1617).

This exhibition – Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver – brings together some 85 masterpieces by both men, making it the first major exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures to be held in the UK for over 35 years. And what a delight it is!

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

These miniature portraits were termed ‘limnings’ at the time, the intricate detailing of their style deriving, ultimately, from medieval manuscript illumination, but the shape and format clearly owing something to the artwork for coins and medals.

Miniatures were prized by monarchs, courtiers and the rising middle classes as a way of demonstrating favour, showing loyalty and expressing close relationships. They could be set into ornate jewelled cases or worn around the neck, could be pinned to clothing or secretly concealed as part of elaborate processes of friendship, love, patronage and diplomacy.

Variety

Having studied the literature of the Elizabethan period, and being a fan of lute music, I thought I knew what to expect – 60 or 70 exquisitely painted miniature portraits – but the most surprising thing about the exhibition is the variety of works it includes (miniatures, oil paintings, sketches, coins, manuscripts) and the presentation and context surrounding the portraits, which make it feel much more like an immersion in the broader culture and history of the time.

How to limn

For example, early on in the exhibition there is a display case showing the dozen or more implements which were required to create and paint miniatures, including a mortar and pestle to grind the colour, sea shells to mix the pigment with water or gum, the vellum surfaces the miniatures were painted onto, which were themselves worked flat using a paintbrush-style stick with a smooth tooth (!) at the end to create a supersmooth and even surface.

Above the case is a video showing every stage in the preparation and painting. Very informative.

Manuscript illumination

I was fascinated to be told that the tradition of these miniatures stems directly from manuscript illumination, and from the very finely drawn illustrations often found in later medieval manuscripts. To demonstrate how close the link was the exhibition includes a surviving manuscript, the charter marking the establishment of Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1583, illustrated by Nicholas Hilliard himself.

Queen Elizabeth

You expect the patrons of these fine artists to have been the richest people in the land, the Queen and her courtiers and there is, indeed, a section devoted to the images of Queen Elizabeth I produced by Hilliard and Oliver. Hilliard, the older man by 18 years, established a monopoly of producing her portraits in miniature. He went on to design seals and illuminated legal documents and medals for the Crown, and became a salaried royal employee in 1599.

To be honest I found the miniatures of Elizabeth on display here less striking than the many full-length portraits of her which exist (and can be seen upstairs at the National Portrait Gallery, for example the stunning ‘Ditchley’ portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger). But I was struck by one very unexpected picture, an image from 1580 of Queen Elizabeth playing the lute. Do you think she took requests?

Elizabeth I Playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Elizabeth I playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Symbols and secrets

Elizabethan culture was packed with signs and symbols. Images and words had multiple meanings, some public and openly acknowledged, others to do with families, family trees and mottos and coats of arms, others deeply personal and private. The miniatures on display reveal a complicated combination of all three.

So, for example, much of the symbolism surrounding he Queen was straightforward enough, beginning with the Tudor rose symbolising her family lineage and including flowers or jewels which symbolised constancy and virtue. No surprises there.

But what are we to make of an image like this, of a young man, not wearing a ruff, with his doublet casually open, set against a backdrop of roaring flames?

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

The commentary says we can be confident that this symbolises ‘burning love’. Fair enough, but what comes over in the section devoted to symbolism, allegory and secret meanings is just how much we don’t know – just how much of the carefully worked symbolism in these paintings has been lost forever. Even of this image, the commentary is forced to speculate:

The man, dressed only in his undone shirt, holds a jewel. This is perhaps a miniature case containing an image of his love, who was presumably the intended recipient of this portrait.

Perhaps. Presumably. Next to it is a weird image of a young man clasping a hand apparently emerging from a cloud in the sky above.

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Because the Latin inscription written either side of his head translates as ‘Because of Athenian love’ the commentary says that the whole image may imply male homosexual love, which was associated with ancient Greece. May. Despite the fact that sodomy was punishable by death under Elizabethan law, so you’d have thought it was not something you’d leave incriminating evidence about, let alone commission the Queen’s own artist to publicise.

Next to it is a portrait of an unknown man, whose meaning, the commentary records, ‘is now obscure, as the identity of the man and the context of the miniature are lost’.

My point being that encountering a steady succession of images of unknown men or unknown women, with obscure or ambiguous mottos, clasping jewels or flowers which presumably had some meaning for them – but reading time and again how their identities and meanings are now long lost – creates a cumulative sense of mystery and uncertainty. Which is all rather wonderful and charming.

The images are so fantastically precise and perfect – and yet their meanings escape us. In some ways that’s frustrating. But in others it’s rather liberating.

Leicester and Essex

One section brings out the age gap between the two artists by comparing their patrons.

Hilliard b.1547, was patronised by Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), Elizabeth’s favourite in the early part of her reign. Hilliard’s portrait of Leicester from 1576 was one of my favourite three or four works from the show. What it lacks in strict anatomical accuracy, it more than makes up for in the tremendous sense of character and personality which it conveys. And, the closer you look, the more unbelievable the detailed painting of the great man’s fine white ruff becomes. This object is only about three inches in diameter. The fineness of the detailing is quite staggering.

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

By contrast, Oliver, born 18 years after Hilliard, in 1565, was taken up by the great court favourite of the second half of Elizabeth’s career, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex. Oliver painted Essex, his friend the 3rd Earl of Southampton, and others in their circle including Southampton’s cousins, the Browne brothers, examples of which are here.

Full-length portraits

Expecting only to see face portraits, I was surprised to discover the exhibition included a whole section devoted to full-length portraits, mostly of a very particular type.

From the late 1580s, both Hilliard and Oliver, like other artists of their day, produced a number of portraits of men listlessly leaning, sitting or reclining in gardens, or in wilder landscapes. Common poses included the head resting on one hand or the arms crossed. These images would have been read by their contemporaries as depictions of the fashionable ‘complaint’ of Melancholy.

One of the most famous of these (possibly because I’ve seen it on the covers of half a dozen different book editions of Elizabethan sonnets and so forth) is Hilliard’s depiction of a noble youth, posed full length and leaning moodily against a tree.

Young Man Among Roses' by Nicholas Hilliard

Young Man Among Roses’ by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1588)

Obviously enough, the figure is surrounded by elaborately painted rose bushes alive with thorns. Presumably these represent the thorns and snares of earthly love and so – presumably – would have had a significant personal meaning for the subject and, presumably, commissioner of the work. But then the commentary points out:

The symbolism of the roses, combining beautiful flowers and sharp thorns, and the Latin motto, suggest that its subject is the pain associated with loyalty to someone who has fallen from favour. It has been suggested that the miniature depicts the young Earl of Essex pining for the loss of the queen’s favour, but the context of the poem from which the motto is taken suggests a political affiliation gone wrong.

As so often, we don’t know and so the entire image becomes a prompt for all kinds of pleasantly romantic speculation.

Oliver branches out

If I was slightly surprised by the full-length portraits, I was astonished when the exhibition went on into a section describing the artistic diversity of the younger man, Oliver, who was far more experimental than Hilliard.

For a start, Oliver tackled overtly religious subjects, something Hilliard doesn’t seem to have done, and we are shown a portrait of Christ he did.

Even more surprisingly, the painting is done using stippling i.e. there are no direct lines defining the image, the whole thing is built up solely through the application of brief impressions of paint. The result is that it looks completely unlike anything else in the show, and resembles more the large paintings of contemporary Italian Renaissance artists such as Correggio and Federico Barocci. Soft and blurry, unlike any other of the images here.

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Also distinctive to Oliver was sketching and drawing. The exhibition shows two A4-size pencil drawings, one of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Maybe Oliver’s French origins connected him culturally to the European Catholic tradition. There are no religious paintings by Hilliard.

Most surprising of all is this large-scale work, sometimes titled An Allegory, sometimes A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love, by Oliver.

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

As so often we are not completely sure, but experts think that this picture shows an allegory of virtuous and immoral love.

On the left, a soberly dressed group of middle-class women, accompanied by a man, walk through woodland. To the right, richly and colourfully dressed women, probably prostitutes, are gathered around a reclining man. Behind these figures a number of other couples embrace in the woodland, and three different types of hunting are taking place: hawking, boar-hunting and shooting ducks. The miniature displays Oliver’s extraordinary skill, at a relatively early stage in his career, in creating a complex, crowded scene, convincing spatial recession and a sense of movement.

Maybe. Perhaps.

James I

The Stuart royal family

A separate room explores aspects of the change which came over the arts when Elizabeth died in 1601 and was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who was crowned James I of Britain. Unlike Elizabeth, James was married with children and thus the need for accurate portraits was greatly multiplied, and they were of a different type. While Elizabeth had to appear stern and aloof, many of the Stuart portraits feel softer and more intimate, as if to be shared among an extended family circle.

While James continued to patronise ‘our well-beloved servant Nicholas Hillyard’, in 1605 the more artistically adventurous queen consort Anne of Denmark appointed Isaac Oliver her ‘Painter for the art of limning’ for the same salary as Hilliard, £40 a year.

The result is a series of miniatures of king, queen and their three children, Henry, Prince of Wales, Princess Elizabeth and Charles, Duke of York. The exhibition shows us portraits by Hilliard and Oliver of the same royals, allowing us to compare their styles.

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Maybe I was subliminally influenced by the extraordinary ‘softness’ of the Jesus portrait, but I thought I detected a general softening of outlines in these Stuart portraits, especially by Oliver.

The level of detail – the hair styling, ruffs and jewels – is the same as the Elizabethan portraits but – maybe it was just me, but – I thought somehow the overall effect of the images was less sharp and precise and, somehow, more gentle.

One thing which definitely changes is the use of red velvet curtains as a background. The Elizabethan images tended to be set against an abstract colour wash, often blue. Now the royals are standing in front of a luxurious red backdrop implying wealth and grandeur of a more baroque and continental style.

Masques

James’s court saw the rise in popularity of masques, elaborate entertainments expensively staged with generally allegorical or classical subjects, words provided by the poet laureate Ben Jonson and sets and costumes by Inigo Jones. Masques were:

hugely expensive and elaborate court entertainments involving music, dance, poetry and sometimes prose. They were performed by courtiers and members of the royal family. Some took place in the Inns of Court and at courtiers’ homes, but the most spectacular were staged at royal palaces, and involved magnificent costumes and sets.

Some historians I’ve read detect in the popularity of masques among the royal court, a movement away from the sunlit, open-air progressions, tournaments and hunts favoured by Queen Elizabeth. The old queen spent a lot of time travelling round the country, imposing on her aristocratic hosts and asking for large entertainments to be staged, in order to make herself known to her subjects and celebrated as the nexus of national power.

In sharp contrast the masque was a form of entertainment which was held indoors, often at night amid candlelight, and was highly exclusive, restricted to close courtly circles.

Puritans, the more radically Protestant wing of the Church of England, saw in these masques and in their pagan, classical subject matter, a form of blasphemy. The way they were held in private gave rise to dark rumours of immorality, an accusation supported by one of the miniatures here, a portrait of an aristocratic lady dressed as the Roman goddess Flora and wearing a surprisingly diaphanous blouse.

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Take a magnifying glass

A contemporary wrote of these miniatures that ‘the art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great … that the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties’ and he raises an important point.

Almost all the works on display in this exhibition are very, very small.

Luckily (vitally), the National Portrait Gallery is handing out free magnifying glasses for visitors (you hand them back at the end) and I found I had to combine the magnifying glass and my own glasses to get a really clear, close-up, in-focus view of each picture.

Summary

This is an absorbing and fascinating exhibition. Being forced to look so very closely at the faces and the finely written mottos, and the astonishingly detailed ruffs and jewels and hairdos of so many of these figures, famous or anonymous, from royalty to dashing adventurers like Walter Raleigh, can’t help giving you the feeling you’re getting really close to these people, looking right into their eyes, rubbing right up against the mystery of their images and dress and symbols.

And when you guess at the meanings of the often unknown symbols, and wonder about the purposes of the pictures (as love tokens, gifts to spouses, favours from royalty or aristocratic patrons), you feel that you, too, are becoming part of the dance of meanings which wove in and out of late Elizabethan and early Stuart courtly culture. This is a wonderfully evocative and beautifully staged exhibition.

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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