First broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation on January 13, 1957, All That Fall is Samuel Beckett’s first and, arguably, most substantial radio play. Quite apart from the insights it provides into this controversial and significant author’s overall output and imaginative vision, the play also represents a comparatively rare conjunction of an avant-garde artist and a mass medium. As such, it represents both a milestone in the history of radio drama—a literary form taken much more seriously in European artistic circles than in American—and in the diversification of Beckett’s aesthetic range.
What ultimately gives the play substance is the same distinctive approach that distinguishes all this artist’s works: the manner in which it challenges—and even satirizes—the medium through which it is being produced. Yet, on a superficial level, the play seems to be a departure for Beckett. Despite its unprepossessing name, the setting of Boghill bears a recognizable relationship to Foxrock, the community in county Dublin, Ireland, where Beckett grew up. This relationship is to some degree strengthened by the proximity of a racecourse in the play. Foxrock is quite close to the premier racing venue of Leopardstown. Although commentators have strongly discouraged neat and exclusive identifications of Beckett characters with real-life counterparts, Beckett’s father did commute to the city by train. Protestantism looms large in a number of the characters’ existences, including the Rooneys’, and Beckett’s background was Protestant.
Another distinctive feature of All That Fall is that it is an uncharacteristically populist work for Beckett. While the range of characters is comparatively narrow, it suggests a more common social world and the roles, mannerisms, and equipment used in order to represent oneself within it. These roles—the stationmaster, the clerk of the racecourse, and so on—are clearly identified. Other nominally realistic features of the play include weather, sound effects, a superficially conventional sense of time, and a marked use of colloquial and idiomatic English as it is spoken in Ireland. Like all Beckett plays, All That Fall also appears to be structured in terms of the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action.
At the same time, however, the play subverts these ostensibly reliable, and essentially commonplace, elements. The name of Boghill is an oxymoron. Two types of terrain are contained in it, each of which, in its own distinct and opposite way, makes forward movement difficult. While the name may indeed convey Irish resonances, its evocative relationship to the Rooneys’ progress seems more to the imaginative point. This relationship may be further appreciated by considering the familiar Irish name Rooney, with its echoes of “ruin,” which is commonly pronounced in Ireland as “rune.” The second syllable of the Rooney name acts as a diminutive of those echoes, muffling them and diminishing them lest they provide too facile an interpretative opening. These minor facets of the work both are and are not what they seem. Perhaps the most significant instance of this is the play’s Christian dimension. While the Rooneys may attend church, and while Maddy might be subjected to various parodic instances of Good Samaritanism on her way to the station, their acquaintance with the Christian message may be more a matter of habit than of profundity, as their blasphemous laughter at the phrase from the Psalms that gives the play its name suggests.
The play’s minor characters act as a chorus which articulates the opposite of the dual perspective embodied by the Rooneys. Unlike the chorus in Greek tragic drama, however, these characters do not act in concert, nor are they intended to function as mediators between action and audience. On the contrary, the state of privileged...
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knowledge that such functioning implies is the very opposite of the quality of consciousness embodied by a Christy or a Mr. Slocum. Each of the minor characters represents a point on a scale of ineffectuality, the highest point of which is denoted by Maddy and Dan. This highest point may also, without contradiction, be termed the lowest point. It is the point of maximum pain, denoted by Maddy in her inability to confine her discourse to mundane pleasantries and connoted by Dan in his blindness. Compared to them, the other characters are nothing if not one-dimensional. While a case may be made for the Aristotelian unities being observed, the fact that the most important action—the death of the child—takes place outside the dramatic framework of the play seriously compromises any such case. It is not clear what kind of action the death is, since Dan’s involvement with it is, to say the least, obscure. The time of the accident is not clear. The place of the accident is unfixed in two senses: The train is moving, and the event has to be viewed in the context of that emptiness in which all falls take place.
Rather than develop a plot line in which variously conflicting interests collide and are resolved, the conflict of All That Fall exists between the irreconcilable duality of its various elements. The nature of this duality extends to the conditions under which the play is produced, and the work exploits many of the apparent contradictory production values of radio drama. Thus, for example, the play places an emphasis on sensory experience—particularly hearing and seeing—which is unusual for a Beckett drama. Paradoxically, the naturalistic detail of the sensory material evokes for the audience an imaginary landscape. This paradox in turn draws attention to the gap that exists between audience and performance, a gap that is obviously endemic to radio plays. The play’s formal and aesthetic reality is based on what transpires in the emptiness between the radio and the listener. The integrity of that emptiness is what the play addresses.
Despite the scrupulous integration of its formal elements, All That Fall is far from being a hollow organizational exercise. Like all of Beckett’s works, the formal order serves ultimately to crystallize that which cannot be ordered. Dan’s mathematical summation of his work and days cannot allay the uncertainty of whether he will be alive when Jerry comes to fetch him for another week’s work. Open as Maddy is to her own awareness of the vicissitudes of existence, she cannot hear that the music coming from the widow’s house—the “Death and the Maiden” quartet by Franz Schubert—has themes that are unnervingly close to her own home. The discrepant representation of Christian ideas in the play does not reduce the relevance of such motifs as pilgrim and Via Dolorosa. As though to demonstrate that form is finally negated by its own requirements, the two deaths that underlie the play’s pedestrian and repetitive action—those of Minnie and of the child—take place outside the course of the day.