The medium of radio exists on a strange border, and Samuel Beckett continuously exploits its paradoxes in the composition of his radio plays. A voice comes to one in the dark, and the voice is both intimate and ubiquitous at once, the disembodied presence of a stranger in one's own room. The history of radio has both solitary and communal modes of listening: Although early units required headphones, it was not long before the wireless was a focal point for family life and recreation in the years before television. Though its pervasiveness didn't kill audio-only media, television has made radio seem somehow old-fashioned. Digital culture in the current century has brought clearer sounds and more control, for both senders and receivers—the compact disc, the laptop, and the podcast give the user absolute control over selecting, starting, and stopping the content. The conceptual innovation in Pan Pan's stage production of All That Fall, Beckett's first play for radio (written at the BBC's suggestion in 1956 and directed by Donald McWhinnie), is thus really a throwback to its first broadcast on 13 January 1957: the fact that one must appear at a particular time and place in order to experience it. Today's audiences at All That Fall, like that of the original broadcast, are no longer wholly in control, and are listening together.
It may be seen as surprising that radio broadcasting continues to flourish in the 21st century at all. Certainly, the reasons are partly economic: Radio remains the cheapest and most democratic form of mass media, with low operating costs relative to the number of people one antenna can reach. But the fact that television has not fully supplanted radio suggests that what audio-only broadcasting offers is substantively different than video, and apparently is even irreplaceable by the internet. With only a few technological upgrades, this century-old technology has survived and maintained its own market, its own loyal adherents, and its own reasons to be. Why is this?
What is durable about radio as a broadcast medium might be the same fundamental principle that makes Beckett's theater different: the expressive power of absence.
What is durable about radio as a broadcast medium might be the same fundamental principle that makes Beckett's theater different: the expressive power of absence. On the radio, it is precisely the invisibility of the bodies, the uncertain origins of the sounds, and the resulting instability of the stage world that work together to activate the imagination of the audience. The optimal way to experience radio drama, as many listeners of the BBC Third Programme did habitually when these were first broadcast, was to sit in darkness for the entire piece, turning one's room into a private theater. Radio heard like this puts all the senses to work, because the only stage is the mind. Such active listening is less and less common now, however, and the pace of life seems to agitate against it. These radio plays have already had radical adaptations each time someone has listened to them inattentively, has walked into a different room of the house and thereby cut them, has been distracted by a phone call, or has driven in traffic while listening to them. Against this drift, Pan Pan has carefully shaped a listening chamber that powerfully directs one's focus to the texts, Beckett's thought, and the performances of the actors. Director Gavin Quinn and designer Aedín Cosgrove have shaped the visual, tactile, and even olfactory experience of the listeners in a way that draws attention without disturbing the disembodiment that is so fundamental to the pieces.
Pan Pan's faithfulness here to the sense of "occasion" of early broadcast media—a feature of Beckett's own experience listening to the radio during the war, as well as the experience of his first listeners—complicates the inevitable questions of authorial fidelity. Beckett's opposition to staging his radio plays is well known, and in the 55 years since the original broadcast, there have been a number of controversies over performances of All That Fall in Great Britain and worldwide. Writing to his American publisher Barney Rosset on 27 August 1957, Beckett was adamant that All That Fall is written "for voices not bodies," and noted that his work for radio depends on "the whole thing's coming out of the dark." The same letter contains a widely quoted dictum taken by some to be his last word on adaptations: "If we can't keep our genres more or less distinct, or extricate them from the confusion that has them where they are, we may as well go home and lie down." Nonetheless, there have been numerous stage presentations of All That Fall since its composition. There is also good evidence that Beckett could not extricate his own works from the confusion of genre as the century wore on, and that for all his hyperawareness of form, Beckett's thought oscillated across many different media in his own drafting process.
Pan Pan's work—some of the most innovative and original in Ireland since the company's 1991 founding—is nothing if not representative of the porous boundaries between visual art, sound art, theater design, installation, live art, and performance. In this sense, Pan Pan's experiments with Beckett point toward a new horizon of the many possible future Becketts, a living legacy that is open to the imagination of alternatives while still being conscious of what is integral to his radical creations. Pan Pan is more alert than many other companies to the increasingly obvious fact that the choice between pure experimentation and keeping "faith" with authorial intention is, like all binaries, a Faustian bargain. It is not either/or, but both/and: Pan Pan's productions are still partly "coming out of the dark," and we are also asked to "listen to the light."
Nicholas Johnson is a director, performer, and teacher who works internationally with practice-based research on Samuel Beckett and other modernists. He is currently an assistant professor of drama at Trinity College Dublin, where he co-directs the Samuel Beckett Summer School.
—Copyright © by Nicholas Johnson