The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Embers, a radio play, begins not with words but with sounds: the “sea scarcely audible,” followed by footsteps in the sand. Only then does the listener hear a human voice speaking a single word, “on,” followed by the sea again, followed by the voice—louder and more insistent this time, repeating the same word, as it will say, then repeat as a command, the words “stop” and “down.” Each time, Henry obediently yet reluctantly does what the voice (his own) first says, then commands him to do. Thus in a few brief strokes, the dramatic pattern for this brief play is established—an alternating rhythmical dialogue of sounds and words. Whenever the voice pauses, as it frequently does, the sea becomes audible once again. Within this macro-dialogue there exist a number of micro-dialogues involving Henry and the voices he hears, recollects, imagines, or projects. The first is with his father, drowned in the same sea before which Henry sits, the father who is now “back from the dead,” Henry says, “to be with me.” In dialogue with this silent ghost, whose body has never been recovered, Henry makes plain his ambivalence both toward the sea he fears, yet to which he finds himself drawn, and toward the father he once sought to escape but now conjures up from death to act as his sole audience and chief source of reproach for his wasted life.

Henry’s garrulous monologue includes (or metamorphoses into) his retelling a story he began some years before, while in Switzerland, where he had gone to escape the “cursed” sea but which he has never finished. “I never finished anything, everything always went on for ever.” The story concerns two old men. As it begins, Bolton, “an old man in great trouble,” awaits the arrival of Holloway, a doctor, “fine old chap, very big and strong.” Neither Henry nor Bolton ever explains why Holloway has been summoned or made to wait with Bolton in a room in which there are “only the embers, sound of dying, dying glow.” The mystery left unresolved and unexplained, Henry’s larger narrative suddenly shifts from Bolton and Holloway to Henry and his father (each aged pair comprising the one who summons and the one who is summoned). As soon becomes apparent, causality and explanations are far less important in this strange play than these parallel relationships.

Lingering just long enough to voice his father’s condemnation of Henry as a “washout,” Henry again suddenly shifts his narrative focus—this time from father and son to his wife, Ada, and daughter, Addie (the “horrid little creature” whom Henry holds responsible for turning Ada against him). Unlike the father, who serves as Henry’s mute audience, Ada converses with him. (Ada may even be present in what follows, though it seems more consistent with the rest of the play that she too is imagined.) Sitting together on the “brink” of the sea, which Henry imagines as “lips and claws,” Henry suggests that he and Ada depart, but she poses questions that imply the hopelessness of Henry’s situation: Where...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In Embers Beckett combines two dramatic modes that he used separately and quite effectively in earlier plays: the monologue, as in Krapp’s Last Tape (pr., pb. 1958), and radio drama, as in All That Fall (pr., pb. 1957). The monologue is particularly well suited to Beckett’s needs, for it allows him to focus the audience’s attention on the character’s existential predicament, his aloneness in the world. However, insofar as this aloneness is less physical than mental or metaphysical—a matter not of place and social relationships but of the void both without and within—the staging of the dramatic monologue poses a significant obstacle to the realization of the existential predicament in that pure and extreme form in which Beckett has conceived it.

Beckett’s bleak vision of blind human persistence and progressive detachment and diminishment leads to radio drama (or, taken in a slightly different direction, to mime plays, such as Acte sans paroles [pr., pb. 1957; Act Without Words, 1958]). All That Fall, the first of Beckett’s radio plays, is for the most part a play performed on radio, having a rather full cast of eleven more or less “realistic” characters. Embers, Beckett’s second, exploits the form to far better advantage, for as Enoch Brater has noted, radio drama provides “an ideal medium for the transmission of the interior consciousness” that Beckett has made one of...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Abbot, H. Porter. Beckett Writing Beckett: The Author in the Autograph. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Astro, Alan. Understanding Samuel Beckett. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Cohn, Ruby. Just Play: Beckett’s Theater. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Esslin, Martin. “Samuel Beckett and the Art of Broadcasting.” Encounter 45 (September, 1975): 38-46.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 3d ed. London: Methuen, 2001.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with and About Beckett. New York: Grove-Atlantic, 1996.

Homan, Sidney, ed. Beckett’s Theaters: Interpretations for Performance. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1984.

Kenner, Hugh. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Lyons, Charles R. Samuel Beckett. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.

McCarthy, Patrick A., ed. Critical Essays on Samuel Beckett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

Worth, Katherine J. “Beckett and the Radio Medium.” In British Radio Drama, edited by John Drakakis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.