The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
All That Fall, a radio play, opens with a chorus of farm animals heard against Franz Schubert’s String Quartet, “Death and the Maiden,” and the shuffle of trudging feet. It is a Saturday morning in June, in the village of Boghill, Ireland, sometime during the 1950’s. Mrs. Rooney (nee Dunne) is on her painful way—she is overweight and in her seventies—to meet her blind husband at the local railway station, on this, his birthday. Since it is also a day for the Leopardstown horse races, everyone hopes that the weather will hold.
As she makes her slow way, she is pursued by memories of her daughter Minnie, dead for some forty years, and by nostalgia for sexual attention. A succession of acquaintances interrupt these ruminations, and Mrs. Rooney exchanges small talk with each about the weather and the day’s races, with recurring references to language, sterility, and impending dissolution. First comes Christy, a carter, riding a hinny-drawn cart, who offers her manure for her garden. Next, she is overtaken by a retired bill broker, Mr. Tyler, riding a bicycle. As they converse, they are covered by the dust thrown up by a grocer’s delivery van, which almost runs them over. Mr. Tyler’s commiserations with Mrs. Rooney are cut short by his anxiety about possibly missing the train, so he pedals ahead. Meanwhile, Mrs. Rooney persists in a series of grim reflections on sexual longings, aging, and death. Then Mr. Slocum, the clerk of the racecourse, draws up in his motor car and, after much travail, succeeds in squeezing Mrs. Rooney inside and restarting his vehicle. They roar off, only to run over a...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
All That Fall was written at the suggestion of the BBC during the summer months of 1956 and, under the direction of Donald McWhinnie, was first broadcast January 13, 1957, on the Third Programme. It was immediately praised as a radio classic, although some critics were disconcerted by the “whodunit” ending.
Beckett’s drama in general has several distinctive features: limited action, sparse dialogue, reduction of interest in individual human character, the absence of conventional problem and resolution, a strong sense of the ritual origins of drama, and an awareness of the nature and conventions of drama itself. A meticulous craftsman, Beckett has taken a direct hand in the production of many of his plays.
In En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), the most influential play since World War II, every detail of the action, every word and gesture, is existentially weighted and has a place in its grand symmetry. All That Fall is similarly designed, so that the more limited resources of sound, voice, and silence bear the same dismal freight; Beckett conceived All That Fall specifically for radio, so that it has no bodies, faces, or gestures, but only a set of interwoven voices emerging out of, and receding back into, the silence of the airwaves. Thus, the answer to the whodunit is designedly beyond reach, and listeners who expect an answer are taunted.
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Village. Unnamed rural community in Ireland that serves as the peripheral setting of the play and establishes the foundation of its humor and tragedy. While Samuel Beckett’s dramatic themes are universal in scope, they are also rooted in his native Ireland.
Country road. Road to the village that is a dangerous and toilsome place—one on which a person might be run over by a passing motor van at any moment and whose dust and filth cling to people. In a broader sense, the country road mirrors the human condition as Beckett presents it—a place where every action is merely a hesitation before death. Parents rear children only to be struck down by disease or by the wheels of a train. Mrs. Rooney shuffles along the country road, suffering under the weight of her own body and the memory of her dead daughter, toward a meeting at the train station with her blind and embittered husband.
Boghill train station
Boghill train station. The station is initially a source of hope. Mrs. Rooney plans to surprise her husband on his birthday by meeting him there. It becomes, however, another source of death when she discovers that a child has fallen beneath a train’s wheels and has died—a tragedy that might have been caused by Mr. Rooney. Mrs. Rooney’s trip to the station also compels her to leave home, where she would prefer to stay, waiting for death to come, as she describes it, by a “drifting gently down in the higher life, and remembering, remembering . . . all the silly unhappiness . . . as though . . . it had never happened. . . .”
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Alspaugh, David J. “The Symbolic Structure of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall.” Modern Drama 9 (December, 1966): 324-332. An overview of the play’s features. Discussion focuses on the work’s plot, and on such themes as paternity and Christianity. The idea of movement in the play is also examined.
Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography, 1978.
Cohn, Ruby. Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut, 1962.
Federman, Raymond, and John Fletcher. Samuel Beckett, His Works and His Critics, 1970.
Fletcher, John. Samuel Beckett’s Art, 1967.
Fletcher, John, and John Spurling. Beckett the Playwright. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985. A helpful introductory study of all of Beckett’s dramatic works, with a chapter on All That Fall. Discussion focuses on the work’s motifs of love and loss and on the wit of its complicated verbal play.
Kenner, Hugh. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, 1973.
McWhinnie, Donald. The Art of Radio. London: Faber, 1969. The author produced the first broadcast of All That Fall. As well as general thoughts about radio as an artistic medium, detailed information regarding the play’s production is included. Of particular interest are the insights regarding the challenges of Beckett’s script.
Van Laan, Thomas F. “All That Fall as ‘a Play for Radio.’” Modern Drama 28 (March, 1985): 38-47. An analysis of how the play uses radio as an artistic idea. The ways in which language and action in All That Fall are significantly reshaped by the medium are discussed. The relationship of the play to the overall preoccupations of Beckett’s work is also explored.
Zilliacus, Clas. Beckett and Broadcasting. Abo, Finland: Abo Akademi, 1976. The definitive account of Beckett’s artistic and professional involvement with radio and television. Beckett’s thoughts about the various productions of his broadcast works are included. Detailed accounts of the productions are provided, including some illuminating commentary on the use of sound effects in All That Fall.