Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama)
All That Fall conveys the idea that existence is accidental and meaning tendentious, much as one finds it to be throughout Beckett’s dramatic writing. In this particular play, Beckett turns the limitations of the radio medium—its confinement to sounds and silence—to thematic advantage: The radio listeners’ functional blindness in respect to the action conveys, in itself, the idea that existence is dependent on the flick of a switch or the twirl of a knob.
More than any of Beckett’s plays, All That Fall is clearly set in a particular place and time: the Ireland of the 1950’s. Yet, for all of its local color, it is designed so as to take its listeners beyond the naturalistic frame of reference suggested by the idiomatic Hiberno-English dialect. The play does not have a conventional “setting” so much as an imaginary environment in which the various spiritual conflicts of the characters are symbolically enacted. The directions, for example, indicate that the various animal sounds do not precede, but follow, Mrs. Rooney’s comments on them—thus implying that the Rooneys’ universe is an environment which they themselves have constructed. At the same time, the play itself bears the marks of its author’s controlling hand: The careful listeners are reminded that they are experiencing an artful illusion. Thus, the leitmotifs of modes of travel, of rising and falling, of sterility and desire, and of debility and death, are woven in rhythmic patterns into a three-part sonata structure. Yet despite these structural constraints, the play has a measure of conventional suspense and rises to a final crescendo.
The tone of the play modulates from pure comedy to bitter pathos, as its bleak existential theme comes more clearly to the surface. Simultaneously, despite her bawdy humor, Maddy Rooney becomes a more sympathetic character. Thus the bitter laughter at the promises of religion does not obscure the audience’s feeling for her suffering. Moreover, by the conclusion, her emotional isolation has become an existential metaphor. At this point, it is clear that the play is an outcry against the silence of God.