Samuel Beckett: Works for Radio

Mark Daniel Cohen on the BBC radio productions of Samuel Beckett's work
Samuel Beckett: Works for Radio: The Original Broadcasts

In a 2007 issue of Hyperion, Mark Daniel Cohen discusses the British Library release of Samuel Beckett's Works for Radio: The Original Broadcasts:
Samuel Beckett: Works for Radio: The Original Broadcasts is a four-CD set of recordings of the five works Beckett wrote specifically for radio performance: All That Fall, Embers, Words and Music, Cascando and Rough for Radio. It includes as well a recording of The Old Tune, Beckett’s translation of Robert Pinget’s La Manivelle, and a monologue titled From an Abandoned Work. The recordings are of the original BBC broadcasts, done from 1957 to 1976, the performances for which, in the case of the five works written for radio, the works were commissioned. La Manivelle is a work commissioned by the BBC from Pinget—Beckett did the translation for the first production, which is the recording included in this set. From an Abandoned Work also is presented in its first, and perhaps only, broadcast performance.

The worth of this set is both in the quality of the performances and in the historic value of the recordings, although these virtues are not equally shared by all the productions. The strength of these productions rests on the actors, most particularly, on the presence of Patrick Magee, who appears in every work, and who can be considered the quintessential Beckett voice. His vocalizations—gravelly yet tender and vulnerable, broken yet strong, aged, filled with rigor, at times barely human, barely articulate, at times almost unlistenable, and always delicately turned to every emotional nuance—is the tonality not just of Beckett’s perennial characters but of the Beckett aesthetic. His is the very sound of Beckett’s universe. (We know that Beckett felt the same—he wrote Krapp’s Last Tape for Magee to perform.) The alignment of Magee with Beckett is one of the gifts this last century received. Present as well are two of the other actors who helped to define Beckett on stage, who knew him, worked with him, and understood how to forge the message: Jack MacGowran and Billie Whitelaw. Any recording of either of these two doing Beckett is indispensable. (Whitelaw, in particular, for those of us who rushed to see the first English language productions, in New York and so often done with Whitelaw, of Beckett’s short stage works in the 1980s—works many of us consider the height of Beckett’s achievement on stage. It was like watching works belonging to the ages emerging in our time, before our eyes, and Whitelaw was the necessary presence in virtually every one of the productions, achieving what seemed not to have been done before, and never with such stunning force, clarity, and impeccable impact as in Rockaby.) [Read the essay]

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