Last Updated September 5, 2023.
All That Fall is a one-act radio play, written in 1956, by Samuel Beckett. Beckett wrote the play after being commissioned by the BBC, and the first production was broadcast in 1957.
During his lifetime, Beckett was insistent that this “is a text written to come out of the dark,” and he refused to allow any theatrical stage productions of it. He even turned down Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright when they asked him if they could produce it as a play. Later, however, he finally agreed to allow it to be performed live, but only if the radio play was performed as a radio play that the audience happened to be watching. He put this stricture in his will, and it has been honored (more or less) to this day.
At the time, as he wrote it, Beckett confided in a friend:
Never thought about Radio play technique but in the dead of t’other night got a nice gruesome idea full of cart wheels and dragging of feet and puffing and panting which may or may not lead to something.
As the radio play begins, we first hear a succession of barnyard animals, the sort you might hear in the countryside. We hear a sheep, a chicken, a cow, a horse, and a dog. The voices of the animals, per Beckett's script, are all performed by actors. They create a barnyard cacophony; then their cries slowly fall away, and we hear the dragging foot and rhythmic pants and grunts of Maddie Rooney.
The music of "Death and the Maiden," by Franz Schubert, rises as Maddie draws near the home where it is playing. She passes by and sings the sad music to herself. She stops when she hears the clappety-clap (again, from an actor) of a horse and cart drawing near. It is Christy, a neighbor. The two chat for a bit, and he tries to sell her some nice dung from his cart.
We are in Boghill, Ireland, a fictitious suburban commuter village based on Foxrock, a town outside of Dublin, where Beckett grew up. Though Beckett had lived in France and written several works in French before this radio play, here he decided to write in English again and created a thoroughly Irish story and set of characters. When All That Fall was performed in his lifetime, Beckett approached various lead actresses (such as Billie Whitelaw, who did a later production) and asked them to be sure to use a very thick Irish brogue while playing Maddie Rooney.
There is an air of intense theatricality and exaggeration about Maddie as she walks to the train station to meet her husband, Dan. She is grotesquely overdramatic about the emotional and existential pain she feels. She stops mid-road and exclaims,
MRS. ROONEY: What will become of me? Oh I am just a hysterical old hag . . . destroyed with sorrow and pining and gentility and church-going and fat and rheumatism and childlessness.
Maddie is obese, which is why we hear her foot dragging as she struggles along the road. In the script of All That Fall, Beckett mentions that Maddie is “dragging her feet” several times, and over and again we hear the rhythmic pace of her unsteady gait. She stops and tussles with her corset, then shouts at a fellow she has met along the road:
MRS. ROONEY: Come back and unlace me behind the hedge! (laughter) Oh what’s wrong with me. To be in atoms, atoms. Jesus, Jesus.
Everything today is reminding Maddie of her daughter, Minnie. She and Dan’s little girl died forty years...
(This entire section contains 1753 words.)
before, but Maddie’s suffering remains fresh and keen. In fact, this is the anniversary of the day Minnie died. It is also her the birthday of her husband, Dan. Wisely or not, Maddie has decided to walk to the train station to meet her husband and give him a birthday surprise. But her mood swings wildly from moment to moment. She drags to a halt and says,
MRS. ROONEY: It is all flooding over her again. She simply went back home. Straight back home.
Speaking of herself in the third person, it is as though Maddie is verbally telling the story about herself as she lives it. This air of heightened theatricality continues throughout the play. Maddie is so distraught that she becomes confused with reality. She meets several people en route to the station, and she accidentally calls at least two different men “Rooney,” the name of her husband. She corrects herself quickly both times. Age is catching up with Maddie Rooney. She stops and moans,
MRS. ROONEY: How can I go on, I cannot. Oh let me just plop down at on the road like a big fat jelly out of a bowl and never move again! A great big slop thick with grit and dust and flies, they would have to scoop me up with a shovel.
We have not met her husband yet, but she stops and tells him, and us,
MRS. ROONEY: Love, that is all I asked, a little love, daily, twice daily, fifty years of twice daily love . . . A peck on the jaw at morning, near the ear, and another at the evening, peck, peck, till you grow whiskers on you.
Beckett’s drama uses these grotesque audio devices, episodes, and characters to indicate the irrationality and absurdity of life. Maddie is lonely and sad; she seeks love; she is uncomfortable with her body; she misses her daughter. Her exclamation of “Christ, what a planet!” encapsulates Beckett’s vision of a frightening, alienating world.
When Maddie arrives at the train station, the train is late. She has to wait. But finally the train arrives, fifteen minutes late, and she greets her husband, Dan. When she asks him why the train was so late, he brusquely tells her he has no idea why.
Dan is blind and walks with a cane, which we hear clacking on the ground as he moves forward. Now, as Dan and Maddie walk together, we hear her dragging foot and his clacking cane, and in between their dialogue all we hear are the sounds of the two of them, walking down staircases and along the road. As their scene together progresses, Beckett adds something else to the soundscape: the light added tom of a drum, like an echo, that accompanies his cane clack and her foot thud, creating a steady, droning beat that feels funereal and inexorable, as they walk home.
Dan is a coarse, off-putting man. He pushes the world away, including Maddie. He is often sick and he meanly reminds Maddie:
MR. ROONEY: Did you ever know me to be well? The day you met me I should have been in bed. The day you proposed to me the doctors gave me up.
When Maddie tries to give him a birthday kiss, Dan shouts,
MR. ROONEY: Kiss you? In public? On the platform? Before the boy? Have you taken leave of your senses?
Dan would like nothing more than to spend the rest of his life sitting at home and doing nothing, “counting the hours till the next meal.” He doesn’t want to talk about Minnie, or his birthday, or anything. All he wants to do is walk home. So Maddie escorts him home, and they make the return journey. They struggle along, Dan almost falling down a staircase, Maddie fussing as she helps him. Maddie muses, “Why don’t we sit down somewhere? Are we afraid we may not rise again?”
The wind is blowing. Blind Dan forgets what direction he is facing, and Maddie blandly tells him he is staring into a ditch containing dead leaves.
“Dead leaves? In June?” Dan is surprised. Maddie bemoans a laburnum that is losing all its tassels. It seems their world is failing and falling. The first drops of rain come down, “cold and drizzle.” Nature is out of joint. “Put your arm around me, be nice to me,” Maddie asks. There is a pause, and then Maddie exclaims happily, “Oh, Dan!” Then they drag and cane and drum onward in the wind and rain.
As they near their home, the couple passes the house where the music "Death and the Maiden" is playing again. They stop and listen. Maddie notices that Dan is crying.
“Why are you crying?” Maddie asks.
“YES!” Dan shouts angrily at her. They do not speak of it again.
Jerry, a boy from the train station, runs up, to give Dan something he left on the train. It is, as Maddie describes, “like a ball, and yet it is not a ball.” Dan becomes angry again and tells her it is just something he carries around with him. Maddie has never seen it before. What it is is unclear. Maddie asks Jerry why the train was so late.
JERRY: It was a little child, Ma’am. (Mr. Rooney groans)
MRS ROONEY: What do you mean, it was a little child?
JERRY: It was a little child fell out of the carriage, Ma’am. (Pause) Under the wheels, Ma’am.
The wind blows loudly. We hear Maddie’s foot and Dan’s cane for awhile. The wind blows more loudly still. The play is over, and nothing more is said.
Maddie has had plenty to say today, but she says nothing after she finds out about the accident on the train. We are left to wonder, uneasily, what happened on the train. Why does Dan have that ball that is not a ball? Why does he groan when he hears about the accident? Is it all because a child has died, and this is the anniversary of the death of their own child, or is there a darker reason for his anger today—did he toss the child off the train, as a monstrous vengeance upon the world for the death of his own child?
When Becket was asked about this much later, he said,
And the answer is we don’t know, at least I don’t . . . I know creatures are supposed to have no secrets for their authors, but I’m afraid mine for me have little else.
All That Fall, a “text written to come out of the dark,” is a haunting and at times wildly (and darkly) funny radio drama, eccentrically florid and Irish, full of despair and hope. Beckett’s brilliant use of sound, rhythm, music, and dialogue creates a richly imagined world that leaves a lasting impression even when the story is done.