Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

Beckett's Trilogy on the Third Programme

Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

Beckett's Trilogy on the Third Programme

Article excerpt

"My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended)," Beckett claimed to Alan Schneider on 29 December 1957 (Harmon, 23). It is a striking remark, one that has long since piqued the interest of scholars working in Beckett studies. More widely, many readers of Beckett will undoubtedly associate this remark with Beckett's 'radiogenic writings,' specifically All That Fall (first broadcast on the BBC's Third Programme on 13 January 1957), followed by Embers (24 June 1959; also winner of the 1959 Italia Prize), Words and Music (7 December 1962) and Cascando (6 October 1964). Most likely during the early 1960s, Beckett also composed the radiogenic 'Roughs' - Rough for Radio II (first broadcast 13 April 1976) and the long unrecorded Rough for Radio I (first broadcast by RTE Ireland on 12 April 2006) - alongside translating Robert Pinget's La Manivelle for the Third Programme's broadcast on 23 August 1960 (with the Anglophone title The Old Tune).1 Accordingly, several key scholarly works have treated these productions as a complete radio corpus. Thus, Beckett's well-known remark to Schneider might be read via his engagement with the Third Programme at this time. Yet as this article emphasises, quite literally, that is not the half of it.

A second and more general context around the mid- to late-1950s witnesses something of a critical consensus in Beckett studies, one shared by all three of his main biographies. Beckett's famous 'siege in the room' between roughly 1945 and 1950 - in which he wrote two plays and four novels (the latter, most relevant here, including the 'trilogy' of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable), several poems and nearly 20 short stories - led to a kind of "creative impasse," in Anthony Cronin's words, even if, at this time, he was on the verge of "new relationships, interests and excitements" (458, 474). Indeed, one of these newfound interests was radio work, as James Knowlson's biography stresses:

Beckett's depression was very slow to lift, as he began to experience renewed doubt as to whether there was any way out of the impasse into which The Unnamable and Fin de partie had led him. The medium of radio, with the challenge of its technical constraints, offered one possible escape route. Donald McWhinnie indeed wrote: 'My impression is that if he is to write at all in the near future it will be for radio, which has captured his imagination.'


Similarly, Deirdre Bair has extended this "depression at not being able to write prose" to early 1958; that is, with Beckett struggling to complete the English translation of The Unnamable (519). However, claims Bair, by the next summer Beckett's lull had dissipated with Comment c'est (How It Is), "which almost demands to be spoken, in order to savour the full flavor of the language." (555) Underscoring this point in a splendid 1987 essay, Robert Wilcher opens his "'Out of the Dark': Beckett's Texts for Radio" by declaring: "Samuel Beckett's encounter with the medium of radio drama between 1956 and about 1962 has been recognized as an episode of some significance in his development as a writer" (1).

From the above, very different perspectives - to some extent underwritten by Beckett's December 1957 characterisation of his work as "fundamental sounds" - a rudimentary picture thus emerges in these pivotal years. It is one of an avant-garde author, having written himself into a creative corner, slowly emerges with a new form of expression by the early 1960s: abstract, aural and disembodied. If broadly accurate, then writing for radio played no small role in the development of Beckett's later works. More specifically, it may be that working with the Third Programme at this time inspired Beckett to write radiogenically - even for works not originally written for radio, like How It Is - in the remaining three decades of his creative output. In this light, Beckett's collaboration with the BBC can be seen as little short of transformative. …

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