The Scaffolding and Audio-Visual Backdrop
The actual architecture of Embers, with the duration and nature of its various parts, has a structured pattern wherein the more lucid and disjuncted qualities of the play is contained. There is a symmetry not unlike the three-part symmetry of All That Fall, with a monologue-dialogue-monologue pattern which, in effect, helps structure the contour of Henry's voice. Both monologues involve Henry's repeated efforts to tell himself a story about a man, Bolton, who sends for a doctor Holloway, presumably so that Holloway can give him a lethal injection. Holloway, however, is only prepared to give Bolton an anaesthetic which will numb his pain for a limited period only. Beckett's familiar concerns are evident in this inner narrative about a man who longs for an end to his torment. Besides the Bolton story, the symmetry of the play's first and final parts is further balanced in that the play both opens and closes with the sound of the sea. Henry's initial monologue is centred around his obsession with this sound, his attempts to remember events from the past connected with his family, and his wish to communicate with his father, who is presumed drowned. This first monologue alternates between these various strands of thought before Henry is eventually joined, in his mind, by his wife, Ada.
This central sequence involves the dialogue between Henry and Ada, which provokes three specific memories. These memories, or mental tangents, are presented in the form of flashbacks, the first featuring the couple's daughter, Addie, with her music master and the second, Addie with her riding teacher. A third flashback involves Henry and Ada apparently making love on the beach, some twenty years earlier. These three visions occur in quick succession in the middle of the central part of the play, so that the effect they produce is that of a build-up to a climax. First, we hear the notes on the piano (in the first episode with Addie), then we hear the horse's hooves (in the second episode with Addie), after which the sea becomes amplified and rough before the final climactic sequence ends with Ada crying out. Both Ada and Addie seem to be additives setting this middle part of the play apart from its neighbouring sections. The two female characters have the effect of offering a variation on the theme of loneliness, providing company, but not comfort, for Henry.
Ada eventually leaves Henry's consciousness and Henry resumes his monologue, concentrating now almost entirely on the Bolton story. Before the play ends, Henry brings out his 'little book,' a diary from which he reads:
This evening . . . . [Pause.] Nothing this evening. [Pause.] Tomorrow . . . tomorrow . . . plumber at nine, then nothing. [Pause. Puzzled.] Plumber at nine? [Pause.] Ah, yes, the waste. [Pause.] Words. [Pause.] Saturday . . . nothing. Sunday . . . Sunday . . . nothing all day. [Pause.] Nothing, nothing all day nothing. [Pause.] All day all night nothing. [Pause.] Not a sound (p. 264).
Thus, the play ends with no resolution other than the certainty that the next day will be the same as the previous one. The attempt at 'plumbing' to rid the mind of excess waste or words, will perhaps occur in every tomorrow. However, like all of Beckett's protagonists, he is obliged to 'go on,' although with the knowledge that the 'nothing' will always prevail.
The flow of the play varies in tempo, rhythm, pitch and density. Strings of thoughts are varyingly hesitant and imperative, and are all cut off with no logical ending. The play itself follows no logical progression other than the gradual loss of control that Henry has over his mind and over his ability to demand certain sound effects, and the increasingly difficult obligation to 'go on' talking. The play is littered with ambiguous references and pauses which also add to the lucid quality of the whole.
The absence of a logical conclusion seems to have become the norm in the literature of the Absurd, and we have come to accept that our minds should be able to rest with the knowledge that there are no answers to the meaning of life. However, this kind of peace cannot last because the very nature of the intellect implies the perpetual search for a synthesis, and the questions will come back to us again and again until we no longer have the power to think. Henry's stories can never end; their end would imply the arrival at some kind of synthesis. Henry will never reach the Self by consciously attempting to exorcise it, since words cannot communicate who we are. Michael Robinson points out that 'to define [the] Self in words would be to place it in the world and therefore to destroy it' (Robinson, p. 24). Clas Zilliacus similarly states that if Henry were able to end his story , he would be 'going beyond the confines of his own condition, of which his story is, in all essential aspects, a duplicate. The moment the story can be finished, there will be no one there to finish it' (Zilliacus, p. 86). The logical elaboration of Henry's inner narrative breaks down because the essence of the story is beyond any means of communication. Words and phrases are echoed successively and repeated at intervals. Strands of narrative are left unfinished, descriptions are questioned, negated and reintroduced. In this way, Beckett is able to communicate the condition of his protagonist's mind.
In his critical essay Proust, Beckett wrote that
life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals; the world being a projection of the individual's consciousness (an objectivation of the individual's will, Schopenhauer would say), the pact must be continually renewed, the letter of safe-conduct brought up to date (Proust, 19).
This describes the stage of life which Beckett calls the boredom of existence, a theme which most of his writing is concerned with. When Beckett claims that the 'pact must be [...] renewed,' he hints at the possibility that consciousness may at times transcend this state of boredom towards a more profound, but perhaps more frightening stage of life.
Of his radio plays, this undertone of habitual life is most evident in All That Fall and Embers, in part due to the fact that in these two plays we are able to perceive a setting which constantly reminds us of the unchanging succession of moments in the external universe, and in part because this monotony is given an audible dimension; the dragging feet in All That Fall, and the sea in Embers. In Embers, perhaps even more so than in All That Fall, Beckett seems to impose this underlying abstract monotony, against which the mental excursions of the mind can be measured; because his focus in his second radio play is on the mind alone: the protagonist, Henry, does not engage in any social contact with other characters.
The immediate non-rational plane of expression is attainable, according to Beckett, when we transcend the boredom of existence and reach the stage of life which he calls the suffering of being. This suffering is reached in periods of emotional transition which represent 'the perilous zones in the life of the individual,' allowing for 'the free play of every faculty' (Proust, p. 19-20). Because it dispenses with the security of habit, this free play is a suffering, and exposes the mortal being to the immortality of the universe. In Embers, Beckett reveals the struggle of an individual trying to escape the constant reminder of the boredom of existence, underlining the futility of a conscious effort to do so and exposing the discordant effect such hopelessness has on the mind. Michael Robinson explains that Beckett's characters need to escape 'the prison of time' in an attempt to discover 'the fixed nature of the Self,' and thus find refuge in the 'changeless condition of Selfhood they believe was lost at birth' (Robinson, p. 17, 18). By projecting Henry almost motionless on an empty strand, Beckett attempts to strip him of any outwardly directed force, so that he can reveal the mind's futile struggle to free itself of thinking.
The play can perhaps be perceived as a freeze-frame picture, a snapshot of Henry's life. All the kinetic activity and visual detail from All That Fall has been abandoned in preference for an abstract, still-life impression featuring the beach, the sea and the sky. 'There is a levelling going on,' Henry says at one point, referring to the topography of the beach, thus underlining the fact that unruly features are being erased from the landscape (p. 261). Henry's figure is the only feature which breaks the horizontal borders between the strand, the sea and the sky. He moves three times in the play, once at the beginning, once in the middle and once at the end. Otherwise, he sits physically motionless and alone. There is 'not a living soul' about, he tells us (p. 261). His comment applies not only to the visual exterior, but also to his own mind. The tedious emptiness of the landscape, familiar from Beckett's earlier works, here expresses the inner emptiness of a life which is no more than a reflection of the boredom of existence.
Declan Kiberd points out with reference to Waiting for Godot, that Beckett's characters tend to be presented in featureless locations which offer little visual contrast,
driven to locate themselves in the world with reference to geography. But the world in which they live has no overall structure, no formal narrative: instead, it is a dreadful place in which every moment is like the next.
It can be argued, of course, that although the world of the Beckett being may have no overall structure or formal narrative, the fact that every moment is like the next affords a certain measure of order. This kind of order is a meaningless, non-progressive order, however, which offers no strategy by which to achieve insight to the Self. It is simply a constant reminder of the unchangeable universe.
As noted above, the boredom of existence has been given an audible dimension in Embers. The constant rhythm of the waves on the shore is the aural backdrop which seems almost as if it is being held by the alternating pressure of a foot on the sustaining pedal of a piano. Faintly audible throughout the play, the sound of the sea blends in with the abstract, featureless, implied visual image.
In fact, Henry immediately draws attention to the indistinguishable quality of the sound:
HENRY: . . . That sound you hear is the sea. [Pause. Louder.] I say that sound you hear is the sea, we are sitting on the strand. [Pause.] I mention it because the sound is so strange, so unlike the sound of the sea, that if you didn't see what it was you wouldn't know what it was (p. 253).
While the actual sound remains the same throughout the play, its representational functions vary. In the inner narrative which Henry tells in order to drown out the droll of the sea, the sound becomes the sound of the dying embers. He also tries to imagine it as the sound of light: 'listen to the light now, you always loved light,' he says to the imagined presence of his father (p. 253). The sound later comes to stand for 'not a sound,' 'lips and claws,' and a 'shifting, lapsing, furtive like dreadful sound' (p. 258). With all these possible specifications, the sound of the sea takes on the function of an all-embracing orchestration of the background humming which our minds normally filter out. These are the inessential sounds of time passing. In Henry's case, however, the sound is permanently with him, and he struggles to suppress it. He tells us that he once travelled to landlocked Switzerland to try to escape it, but even there, its presence persisted.
The sea is a threat yet Henry is drawn towards it. His aim in the play is to search the depths of his mind in order to find some kind of source which can offer him a measure of insight to his Self and thus give him peace. The sea is connected to this quest less because of its concrete role in Henry's life (he has always lived by the sea, his father drowned in it and he experienced his first sexual encounter here), but because of its perplexity:
HENRY: And I live on the brink of it! Why? Professional obligations? [Brief laugh.] Reasons of health? [Brief laugh.] Family ties? [Brief laugh.] A woman? [Laugh in which she (Ada) joins.] Some old grave I cannot tear myself away from? (p. 258).
Henry begins with practical questions and ends with a hint at the unexplainable. The fact that he is drawn towards the sea may perhaps be best explained by people's tendency to seek the source which might offer us some kind of insight to the mysteries of life.
Eugene Webb points out that the sea symbolises life 'in its most inclusive sense,' meaning that we must here include death as a part of life (Webb, p. 78). Certainly, Henry's references to the sea as 'lips and claws' and the 'sucking' sound would support this view. Webb also mentions that the vague 'roar' of the sea is a symbol for the 'formlessness' of life, claiming that it is the lack of form which Henry cannot tolerate. Beckett's characters, according to Webb, 'try to reduce chaos to order.' Chaos, however is not a word one would associate with the sea in Embers. Neither does it roar. Instead, it is a passive sound which displays the paradox of persistent passivity. The sound makes Henry conscious of the fact that 'something is taking its course,' He seems to recognise the fact that there is a wider, subconscious aspect to the sea as a symbol which cannot be rationally defined.
The sea as a symbol or metaphor has, of course, almost become a cliché in the arts, and it seems as if Beckett draws on our ability to recognise it as such in Embers. It is clear that the sea has symbolic significance, but exactly what is not fully explained, only hinted at. According to Jung, whose writings fascinated Beckett, we cannot hope to define or explain the subconscious aspect of symbols:
As the mind explores the symbol, it is lead to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason. [...] Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend.
Beckett seems to distrust man's conscious use of symbols (perhaps partly as a reaction to the Catholic religion's employment of symbols and icons). The key word in Beckett's work is 'perhaps,' according to Jack MacGowran, who played Henry in the McWhinnie production. Beckett, he continues, 'is sure of only two things: he was born and he will die;' so too are his characters (Bair, p. 555).
The volume of questioning Beckett is able to generate is, of course, relative to the amount of answers he can then refrain from delivering. In hinting a lot, he is also able to negate a lot and thus he is able to express the disjuncted mind of his protagonist. This is, of course, the very basis for Absurd theatre, wherein questions are raised not to be answered but to reveal the fact that there are no answers. The sound of the waves in Henry's mind, therefore, is perhaps Beckett's abstract presentation of questions. He draws attention to the redundancy of words, and presents symbols as symbols, knowing that a symbol is a symbol because it involves something unexplainable. This, I believe, is perhaps also why Beckett was drawn to both music and sound to express the state of his characters' mind.
Beckett was a linguist and a musician. Both of these areas of study focus specifically on rules and conventions, grammar and shape. McWhinnie's production of All That Fall reveals the fact that Beckett paid detailed attention to the organisation and orchestration of sounds as well as the shape of words and sentences. It has generally also been noted that some of Beckett's work bears signs of the influence of expressionist theory. This is evident in Embers, not only in the fact that the implied visual setting expresses a particular state of mind, or because the play itself is concerned with a form of psychoanalysis, but because the shape of the narrative itself seems to follow certain principles which we associate primarily with expressionism. The dictionary definition of expressionism stresses that its main principle is that 'expression determines form.' It is perhaps difficult to imagine that expression has not always affected form in art, but what is significant here is the fact that extreme expressionism often reveals itself to be form and nothing else, where sense and meaning are sacrificed for sound and shape. This theory may have attracted Beckett simply because of his distrust of representation and certainties, and his fascination with form. If, as he says, 'to write is to fail,' then at least this can be insinuated by the shape of sentences, the structure of his narratives and the lack of rational expression.
Under such circumstances, Beckett ultimately arrives at the kind of shape for his narratives which the Unnamable is compelled to follow, one that includes or suggests, repeats and negates and is concerned only with the telling itself. Beckett's radio plays similarly evolve towards the narrative shape we find The Unnamable toiling with:
What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later?
It would seem that this kind of narrative, coupled with the search for the Self, has the preoccupations of existential philosophy at its heart: Sartre's idea that conscious entities are always in the process of 'becoming' certainly seems present in Beckett's work. Beckett borrowed freely from philosophy and literature, but he was for the most part a second-order philosopher. 'There is no key or problem' he said when confronted with the idea that the existentialist problem of being may offer a key to his works. 'I wouldn't have had any need to write my novels if I could have expressed their subject in philosophic terms.' He also told Harold Hobson that he was 'interested in the shape of ideas' even if he '[did] not believe in them' (Bair, p. 286).
One of Beckett's methods of expression in Embers is to adopt sounds which clash with each other. A stylistic comparison in terms of coherence and incongruity can here be made with certain forms of modern music which have greatly influenced Beckett. Musical motivation and coherence have since the 17th century been provided by a dependency on the system of major and minor keys. Wagner's Romanticism in the 19th century expanded the chromatic vocabulary, using what one might call the in-between pitches in the diatonic Western scale, so that the tensions of dissonance became extreme, and tonality itself often became unrecognisable. Other composers similarly increased the scope for permissible harmony. Beckett disliked Wagner's music for the expressive intensity of its grand themes and its sober moralistic tone bordering on pretentiousness. However, Wagner's experimentation with harmony and intensity lead to further developments in music towards atonality and expressionism, as well as leading indirectly to impressionism. In the fifties, Beckett listened to a lot of dodecaphonic music by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern (the 12 note music of the chromatic scale), and although he always returned to the Romantics (excluding Wagner and Mahler), the exciting discord effect generated by these post-Wagnerian expressionists had its roots in the same absence of logocentricity which is evident in Beckett's philosophy. Beckett's prime focus, then, is constantly on both the quality of the sounds as well as the shape of the words and sentences he uses.
The Contrast in the Foreground
It is by looking at the relationship between sounds that we are able to tell them apart. In everyday life, we tune out most of what we hear and what we see, but we respond to some images and noises because they somehow stand out. The background humming, whether it be the wind in the trees or the hum of the refrigerator, will always have an effect on the way we perceive the sounds we actually respond to. Embers focuses on the relationship between the norm and our wish and fear of deviating from the norm, and on how the norm affects the deviations.
The protagonist's state of mind in Embers - a mixture of arrogance, longing and frustration - has an overall effect on the moods generated in his imagined dialogue and his flashbacks. Henry talks in order to drown out, or at least take his mind off, the sound of the sea. He hopes to impose contrast on his situation. As previously remarked, the visual geography of Henry's physical location is a kind of anaemic grey area, representing the boredom of existence. In his inner narrative, therefore, he is concerned with details and alternations between light and darkness:
Bolton starts playing with the curtain, no, hanging, difficult to describe, draws it back, no, kind of gathers it towards him and the moon comes flooding in, then lets it fall back, heavy velvet affair, and pitch black in the room, then towards him again, white, black, white, black, Holloway: 'stop that for the love of God, Bolton, do you want to finish me?' [Pause.] Black, white, black, white, maddening thing (pp. 263-64).
The dichotomy of light and darkness, of course, implies that of life and death, so that Bolton, like Henry, is here fluctuating between being and not being.
Henry also demands certain sound effects to provide a contrast to the monotony of the sea. He twice asks for the sound of hooves, hoping that the 'ten-ton mammoth' can be trained to mark time; have it 'stamp all day' and 'tramp the world down' (p. 253). He similarly asks for a drip, as if the sea could be drained by the sound effect. Later, he also asks for the sound of a thudding stone:
[Wildly.] Thuds, I want thuds! Like this! [He fumbles in the shingle, catches up two big stones and starts dashing them together.] Stone! [Clash.] Stone! [Clash. 'Stone!' and clash amplified, cut off. Pause. He throws one stone away. Sound of its fall.] That's life! [He throws the other stone away. Sound of it fall.] Not this . . . [Pause.] . . . sucking! (p. 260)
Implicit in this demand is Henry's longing for life as a contrast to death, or at least as an alternative to the kind of 'living death' which we associate with most of Beckett's characters. By imposing contrasting sounds, we are made aware of Henry's need and ability to control the soundscape in which he exists. He is not concerned with aesthetics but with an expression which can counterpoint the droll.
Henry also seeks the company of a listener who, although he may not answer, can at least provide him with the illusion of a contrast to his loneliness.
Can he hear me? [Pause.] Yes, he must hear me. [Pause.] To answer me? [Pause.] No, he doesn't answer me. [Pause.] Just be with me (p. 254).
If 'to be is to be perceived,' then Henry's appeal for his father's presence also affords some evidence to his own existence. Henry's dialogue with Ada is further proof of his own existence and, again, offers a contrast to his loneliness and to his monologue.
As Eugene Webb points out, however, the sound effects are constructs of Henry's imagination, lasting only as long as he consciously thinks about them (Webb, p. 79). His memories, similarly, are only time-outs from which he is destined to return to his present state. He wants to go for a walk, but can only get as far as the water's edge and back. His stories lead him to a stasis from which he can proceed no further. One can think of the result of his failed attempts at developing towards some kind of synthesis as an atonal mental discord. And it is here, beyond the rational, that he experiences the suffering of being and the limitations of the mind, just as it is by the hard dissonant sounds in Schoenberg's music that one is exposed to the nightmare which one would normally try to avoid.
Beckett uses the voice as a pure instrument. He schooled his actors in verbal sprints and left most of them to speak their lines without Stanislavskyan motivation or emotional padding. This is, perhaps most evident in the case of The Unnamable, but it is also evident in Henry's narrative and especially in Voice's low panting in Cascando. The mood is ideally achieved by the shape of the utterance, it's duration, its pitch and its density rather than from any underlying emotion, so that when Henry speaks, his voice orchestrates his mind, existing successively in time like the succession of music.
If Beckett was influenced by the atonal music of the expressionist movement, his writing was no less influenced by impressionist artists. In the melodic contour of Henry's voice, there are similarities to the kind of narrative we find in impressionist films from the first half of the century. The school of French impressionist filmmakers (such as Abel Gance, Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac and Jean Epstein) gained its name because it tried to make narrative form 'represent as fully as possible the play of a character's consciousness.' What this implies in practice is to depict memories, for instance by flashbacks,
. . . sometimes the bulk of a film will be a flashback . . . irises, masks, and superimpositions function as traces of a character's thoughts and feelings. . . When a character in an impressionist film gets drunk or ill or dizzy, the filmmaker renders that experience through out-of-focus or filtered shots or vertiginous camera movements (Bordwell, pp. 382, 383).
The impressionist filmmakers also experimented with rhythmic editing indicative of the 'pace of an experience as the character feels it moment by moment' (Bordwell, p. 383). This kind of cinematic cutting can be found in the three short flashbacks in the centre of Embers. The three frames, in quick succession, last for only approximately eight seconds each. They are separated, so that they become individual shots, by a comment from Ada which emphasises the volume and intensity in Henry's mind against Ada's own detachment. Her comments only accelerate his transition to the next tangent: 'You are silent today,' 'What are you thinking of,' and 'Don't stand there gaping' (p. 258, 259, 260).
Similarly, Henry's rapid shift of focus from his father to Ada, to Addie and back to his father at the end of his first monologue (though it does not involve cutting in the same way we perceive the flashbacks), gives the impression of a montage of thoughts rendering a mind in pursuit. Of course, in literature as in music, the speed at which the narrative moves often suggests a particular mood or energy level. The pauses between words, however, are more easily transmitted and perceived through the technical media, or by musical performance.
In terms of music, a comparison with Embers can also be made with the kind of flow we find in what has become known as musical impressionism. There is a gradual lead up to the Bolton story, starting when Henry begins talking about his need to tell stories. When he actually returns to begin the story, he introduces it by prompting it, first hesitatingly, then louder, with the same imperative by which he demands certain sound effects.
Henry's confidence soon turns to confusion, however, as the story fails to develop:
Bolton [Pause. Louder. ] Bolton! [Pause.] There before the fire. [Pause.] Before the fire with all the shutters . . . no, hangings, all the hangings drawn and the light, no light, only the light of the fire, sitting there in the . . . no, standing . . . (p. 254).
It is one of Henry's favourite stories, and he has told it to himself countless times. Of course, we know that he never finishes it, 'I never finished any of them, I never finished anything, everything always went on forever' (p. 254). Bolton is never given his injection, and Henry never finishes the story.
Like Beckett, the French composers of the early 20th century did not, in general, appreciate the density of texture which arose from the Wagnerian obsession with weighty thoughts. According to James Knowlson, Beckett was particularly enthusiastic about French music and used to play piano pieces for friends, with Debussy preludes being among his favourites (Knowlson, pp. 65-66). Debussy's 'Prélude à 'L'après-midi d'un faune' (composed in the early 1890's) breaks with the emphasis on major-minor tonality, and at times leaves the key in doubt. Instead of the hard sounds which appear in Schoenberg's music, however, Debussy's music reflects more sensuous values. Although any sensuousness is repressed in Henry's voice, he reveals a longing, and his closeness to the microphone similarly affords a certain intimacy.
The opening of Debussy's Prélude is frequently cited by music scholars as a prime example of the kind of ambiguity which is reflected in musical impressionism. In the first two bars of the flute melody, Debussy 'takes an idea which is hesitant, turning back on itself twice before opening out, unassertive and so unsuitable for 'logical' elaboration in the orthodox manner.' Although there are excursions from it, the flute theme runs throughout the Prélude, returning rather than developing progressively. Henry similarly returns to his present state, which only torments him, and so he turns back to his stories or to his memories.
The effect generated by the hesitancy and repetitive phrases both in Beckett's play and in Debussy's music is that we perceive a mixture of improvisation and associations of themes. The structure of Debussy's piece seems to echo a deeper mental process in compliance with the succession of associations in the mind and in time. This is, of course, the basis in Embers too. Thoughts are gradually provoked to materialise in Henry's mind, before they are suddenly cut off. In fact, with the fading up of the sea, it seems as if the play itself is gradually provoked to materialise in a long drawn out crescendo, at first inaudible, with an effect similar to that which is evoked by the introduction of the single theme in Ravel's infamous Bolero (1928). This gives us the impression that the sound has been present even before it is consciously acknowledged, mimicking the way thoughts gradually brew in Henry's mind with a mixture of control and improvisation. The sound of the sea is only recognisable when Henry eventually identifies it, and of course, even then, it remains illusive.
When Ada is introduced, opening a new sequence in the play, it is as if she has silently sneaked into Henry's mind. 'Have you been there long?' he asks, and she answers vaguely in her low remote voice: 'Some little time' (p. 257). Prior to this, Henry was immersed in memories from his childhood, one episode which he remembered vividly was of his mother reprimanding him for something he had done. In retrospect, therefore, Ada's appearance represents the nagging presence of the mother figure which Henry just mentioned, so that she becomes the replacement instrument in what is actually an associative activity.
Later, before Ada leaves, we are able to anticipate Henry's return to his monologue. He gradually has less and less to say to Ada, and seems to become more and more dependent on her. Ada asks him who he was with before he spoke to her, and thus the subject of Henry's father is re-introduced. At last, Henry feels she is about to offer him some kind of insight, and urges her on. 'Keep on going, Ada, every syllable is a second gained' (p. 262). When she actually leaves, he frantically continues talking where Ada left off.
Not yet! You needn't speak. Just listen. Not even. Be with me. [Pause.] Ada! [Pause. Louder. ] Ada! [Pause.] Christ! [Pause.] Hooves! [Pause. Louder.] Hooves! [Pause. ] Christ! [Long pause] (p. 263).
As with Debussy's musical themes, the links between the present and the past in Embers are transitory and elastic. The memories of Addie are not prompted by Henry's demands in the way the sound effects are. Ada simply asks Henry where Addie is, and the present dissolves with a '[s]mart blow of cylindrical ruler on piano case. Unsteadily, ascending and descending, ADDIE plays scale of A Flat Major, hands first together, then reversed.' (p. 258). 'She must learn,' Ada insists referring to the music lessons, 'that - and riding.' The next episode follows:
RIDING MASTER: Now Miss! Elbows Miss! Hands down Miss! [Hooves trotting] Now miss! Back straight Miss! Knees in Miss! [Hooves cantering.] Now Miss! Tummy in Miss! Chin up Miss! [Hooves galloping.] Now Miss! Eyes front Miss! [ADDIE begins to wail.] Now Miss! Now Miss!
[Galloping hooves, 'Now Miss!' and ADDIE's wail amplified to paroxysm, then suddenly cut off. Pause.]
ADA: What are you thinking of? [Pause.] (p. 259).
Henry sustains the memories briefly. Each one is a self-contained dynamic swell, cut off at its most discordant and amplified note. The final memory is the one in which Ada and Henry are presumably in the act of conceiving Addie, cut off when Ada cries out. This final episode of the sequence of three thus becomes the main climax of the middle section of the play, both for its timbre and volume, with the sea becoming rough and amplified. But as with the climax of the thundering train in All That Fall, this climax is not a result of the development of a plot. Instead, it functions as an expression of Henry's mental state
The first and final sections of the play have their moves towards a climax, too. Towards the end of Henry's first monologue, the anguish builds up in his mind as he talks around the essence of the Bolton story and instead of developing it, elaborates on the visual details of the room in which the two men are brought together. As he closes in on the essential moment of the story, he begins to mimic the dialogue between the men rather than try to narrate what their communication actually entails:
Following conversation then on the step, no, in the room, back in the room, following conversation then back in the room, Holloway: 'My dear Bolton, it is now past midnight, if you would be good enough-', gets no further, Bolton: 'Please! PLEASE!' Dead silence then, not a sound (p. 255).
Henry's repetition and detailed description reveals the fact that he is incapable of communicating the essence or the end of the story. The image itself becomes static as the two men in the story face each other without hope for release. Bolton's 'please' and Holloway's silence cannot be resolved by a compromise, so the story cannot end. The image dissolves into an impression of abstract symbols; light and darkness, the sound of dying and the silence as Henry struggles with the words
white world, great trouble, not a sound, only the embers, sound of dying, dying glow, Holloway, Bolton, Bolton, Holloway, old men, great trouble, white world, not a sound. [Pause.] Listen to it! [Pause.] Close your eyes and listen to it, what would you think it was? [Pause. Vehement.] A drip! A drip! [Sound of drip, rapidly amplified, suddenly cut off again.] Again! [Drip again. Amplification begins.] No! [Drip cut off.] Father! (p. 255).
Henry again cuts himself off from the story and from his anguish and returns to his attempt to reach his father. However, this is 'no good either,' so he returns to his narrative again only to reach exactly the same point; 'great trouble, white world, not a sound, no good. [Pause.] No good. [Pause.] Can't do it. [Pause.] Listen to it! [Pause.]' (p. 256).
In the final part of the play, after Ada has abandoned him, Henry returns to the narrative and again it reaches the same dead-end whereby the two men stand face to face while Henry is only able to repeat key words: 'not a sound, white world, bitter cold, ghastly scene, old men, great trouble, no good. [Pause. ] No good' (p. 264). Holloway, of course (as previously noted), is only prepared to give Bolton an anaesthetic which will wear off in time and return Bolton to his anguish. The panic which Henry suffers results in the loss of control of the rational mind which leads to a mental stasis.
The effect that all the individual movements towards an unresolved stasis has is one of mounting pressure which is not released, and so Henry can only alternate between his different mental strands or return to the present. These points of anguish reveal the limitations of the mind; the narrative can only progress so far, the fire is reduced to glowing embers; the description of Henry's father dissolves into the uncertainty surrounding his death; Henry himself is only able to move as far as the water's edge; his communication with Ada is limited in that her concerns are simple motherly concerns rather than existential ones; and he can only remember the irritating shortcomings of his daughter. Thus the theme of mental limitation seems to have replaced the prominence of physical decay which we find in All That Fall.
The Depth of Mind
Ada's description of her father-in-law's posture demonstrates that our memories are often able to remember inconsequential detail, but also that it is stillness and silence which perplex us most.
[. . . ] there are attitudes remain in one's mind for reasons that are clear, the carriage of a head for example, bowed when one would have thought it should be lifted, and vice versa, or a hand suspended in mid-air, as if unowned. That kind of thing. But with your father sitting on the rock that day nothing of the kind, no detail you could put your finger on and say, How very peculiar! No, I could never make it out. Perhaps, as I said, just the great stillness of the whole body, as if all the breath had left it. [Pause. ] (p. 263).
Ada draws attention to the perpetual need not only to perceive a posture, but to decipher it, providing the play with its most direct statement about the rational mind's need to understand and explain.
Following his father's death in the thirties, Beckett read widely on the subject of psychology and even underwent psychotherapy himself. The method of therapy practised at the Tavistock Clinic in London, where Beckett was a patient, was a form of reductive analysis aiming to discover the 'dynamic links between the symptom and its causes in the past.' Beckett explained that he used to lie down on the couch and try to go back into his past. 'I think it probably did help me perhaps to control the panic,' he has later commented (Knowlson, pp. 176-77).
Henry seems to go into his past attempting to 'plumb' his mind for this very same reason. He needs to control the panic brought on by the sound of the sea. 'Who is beside me now?' he begins, 'My father, back from the dead, to be with me' (p. 253). When Ada later halts in her description of a scene involving Henry's father, he urges her on, 'Drive on, drive on! Why do people always stop in the middle of what they are saying?' (p. 262). Henry feels he is moving towards something significant, struggling to reveal the thing in his past which can afford some answer to his constant torment. His father, being what Hamm in Endgame would call his 'accursed progenitor,' acts as Henry's prime target, suggesting that there is a hierarchy of significant elements from the past.
The most significant elements, however, often seem to be the ones that are most difficult to reach. Henry is able to create the presence of certain people, while others are beyond his reach. He does not seem to know exactly what he is looking for, he simply feels that the presence of someone other than himself might reveal something about himself. 'After years and years of stories,' he says, 'the need came on me, for someone, to be with me, anyone, a stranger, to talk to, imagine he hears me, years of that, and then, now, for someone who . . . knew me' (p. 255). Since he cannot know himself, he needs a perceiver who can help him to see.
Clas Zilliacus points out that Henry's respective appeals for 'Ada! [Pause.] Father! [Pause.] Christ! [Pause]' at the end of the play are in order of availability, but in reverse order of significance (Zilliacus, p. 82. Beckett, p. 264). Henry is able to engage in dialogue with Ada. He can imitate his father's voice, and he is also able to talk to his father, but his father does not answer. His calls for Christ, however, do not seem to involve any sincere hope of transmission. In correspondence to the focal distance between Henry and his summoned companions, the volume and quality of voices range from Henry's, close up, via Ada's distant voice, to his father's silence and the complete absence of God.
Michael Robinson has claimed that Embers 'lacks the sure control of emotion, and the absolute command of its medium' by which All That Fall was able to convey the universal statement of 'man's anguish without God' (Robinson, p. 286). In All That Fall, Mrs Rooney displays compassion and sensitivity with a naive sense of tragedy in the musical swells which gives the play its force and rhythm. In Embers, however, Henry's self imposed isolation makes him arrogant, limiting his control over his own mind.
This arrogance, exhibited in both his monologue and his dialogue with Ada, somehow seems to affect the nature of Henry's memories as well. His conversation with Ada and the episodes he recounts from the past are not exact recordings or reconstructions. Instead, they are directly influenced by Henry's present mental state, so that they retain the negative value which Henry has already ascribed them. They somehow exist in the present, as well as being a part of the past.
Krapp's Last Tape is perhaps a natural bridge between the stage and radio, and a natural prelude to Embers in particular. By re-playing the recordings of his own voice, made when he was much younger, Krapp displays the effect key events had on his state of mind at the time they were recorded, and the effect they generate while he is listening in the present. The characterisation of the protagonist, therefore, is conducted by focusing on key moments from his past life. Henry, in Embers, does not have actual recordings of his own voice. However, whereas the recorded voice in Krapp's Last Tape is unaffected by Krapp's present state of mind, Henry's mental excursions must be seen in the light of his present arrogance and desperation.
The idea that our present state of mind affects the way we remember things from the past is not new to literature. Experimentation with the synchronised progression of time and narration has long been practised in writing, by novelists in particular. Beckett was attracted to Proust's treatment of time in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, which depicts a long drawn out struggle to recall and thus transcend a painful past. The history in this work is triggered by the simple taste of madeleine cake. In Embers, we perceive a similar two-way effect whereby Henry's present state of mind affects his memories and, in turn, his memories affect his present state of mind, so that he is unable to learn from them.
In his first monologue, Henry recounts a memory of Addie in which he is trying to shake her off; 'Run along now, Addie, and look at the lambs,' he says (p. 256). The episode ends with Henry losing his temper and Addie crying. We recognise the same arrogant mood in his later flashbacks involving Addie. Henry only remembers the negative aspects of her, namely her failure to hit the right note on the piano and her lack of control over the horse she is riding.
Likewise, when he thinks about Ada prior to her actual presence, he claims that 'conversation with her, that was something, that's what hell will be like, small chat to the babbling of Lethe' (p. 256). When she arrives on the scene, as a construct of Henry's imagination, she is true to the impression Henry has given of her. She inquires: 'I hope you put on your jaegers,' and Henry snaps back with cynicism:
What happened was this, I put them on and then I took them off again and then I put them on again and then I took them off again and then I took them on again and then I - (p. 257).
Ada also lays out her shawl for Henry to sit on, she worries about him ruining his good boots and constantly expresses her concern for their daughter. By exposing Henry to a simulation of family life, Beckett illustrates how the everyday trivialities block the path to self-perception, and it may be that this is partly why Henry looks back on his history with contempt. He seems to blame his past for his present, while at the same time, he is incapable of scrutinising his past objectively.
Beckett draws attention to the shape of the play by making his protagonist conscious of his own effort to control what is in his mind. Charles R. Lyons suggests that 'Beckett's plays never enact a story,' instead, they 'present a character repeating the text of a story, usually partial and disjunctively organized.' Lyons also claims that the memories which some characters struggle with in the present are not inserted for the purpose of 'organising the dramatic action.' Certainly, the memories which Henry recounts do not contribute to the development of any plot or action in the play. Rather, we are able to observe, in Henry's case, the negative effect these events have on the character's present state of mind. At the same time, we appreciate the fact that Henry's present arrogance colours the nature of the flashbacks themselves, and restricts the control he wishes to have over his own mind.
In a 1938 review of Murphy, Dylan Thomas remarked that 'the story never quite knows whether it is being told objectively from the inside of its characters or subjectively from the outside.' The confusion as to what part Henry plays in his own stories may be summed up in Thomas' remark. It seems as if Beckett superimposes Henry onto his inner narrative.
Indeed, it may be the case that Henry does not consciously see a connection between himself and the stories and memories with which he fills his mind. Neither does an author necessarily consciously superimpose himself onto his fictional protagonist. In Embers, Henry is both the protagonist and the artist. As an artist, he must speak and make sounds in order to orchestrate his own existence. As a protagonist, he must speak in order to drown out the haunting sound of the sea. In the process, the protagonist's mental associations result in bursts of irrational frustration as he fails to reach the essence he seems to be seeking. The artist also gradually loses control of his art as he becomes unable to conjure up sound effects and continue his narrative. While the link between the artist and the protagonist is not explicit, one cannot forget that the author's creation is nonetheless a product of his own mind and thus in some way related to the author's empirical paradigm. However, as literary criticism has established, there will always be elements in a character which indicate a degree of self will.
In one of the Tavistock lectures on psychology which Beckett attended in London in the thirties, Jung explained how the poet is able to dramatise and personify what is in his mind. He concluded by stating that one can read a writer's mind when one studies his characters. A fictional character's independence from its creator may be compared to the 'autonomous activity' of complexes which are sometimes able to 'emancipate themselves from conscious control to such an extent that they become visible and audible' (Bair, p. 208). Without drawing the comparison out completely, Beckett uses the idea of the author being projected onto his characters. In the case of his radio plays, however, only the audible aspect holds true.