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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 would they go, and what would Addie do if she found him gone (as he found his father)?

The scene again shifts, this time to Addie at her music lesson, being chastised by her teacher for making the same mistake over and over. Between this brief interlude and the even briefer one that follows (Addie at her riding lesson), Henry presents himself as his daughter’s ineffectual champion against Ada, the villainess who forces Addie to submit to the discipline of learning to play a piano and ride a horse. Against this image of a domineering wife, Henry posits the memory (which may be imagined rather than recollected) of Ada “twenty years earlier, imploring” Henry to do (or not do) something that is never made clear. The image of the imploring younger wife contrasts with the older one, who hectors Henry about his hemorrhoids, his underwear, and his habit of talking to himself.

Although Henry finds the sea’s...

(The entire section is 1,981 words.)