Review: Samuel Beckett, “All That Fall”

Samuel Beckett wrote All That Fall for radio broadcast and did not want it staged, saying, “Even the reduced visual dimension it will receive from the simplest and most static of readings . . . will be destructive of whatever quality it may have and which depends on the whole thing’s coming out of the dark” (quoted by Marjorie Perloff, with italic and ellipsis, in “The Silence That Is Not Silence” ). This Blackbird Theatre staging has the permission of the Beckett estate.

Throughout the production, Beckett’s portrait glows “out of the dark” down on the audience, needlessly distracting. Then, the presentation of the set as a sound studio with actors reading their parts produced an incongruity of costume and action with dialogue – should have listened to it with my eyes closed, as suggested by artistic director Duncan Fraser.

Still, a staged radio play is better than no radio play and this was a fine performance, especially Lee Van Paassen’s portrayal of Mrs. Rooney. But when Jerry gives Mrs. Rooney the thing that “looks like a kind of ball,” it makes a musical sound like a child’s toy. Mystery solved, yet, the sound was not in Beckett’s stage direction, and couldn’t have been his intention, since Mrs. Rooney says, “What is it, Dan?” (Wikipedia’s informative guide to this play provides more clues to what Beckett wished to remain “secret.”)

Perhaps the motion of actors and paraphernalia of sets can detract from the richly funny dialogue, such as this one between Mr. and Mrs. Rooney as they are walking home from the train station.

MR ROONEY: Do you know what it is, I think I shall retire.

MRS ROONEY: [Appalled.] Retire! And live at home? On your grant!

MR ROONEY: Never tread these cursed steps again. Trudge this hellish road for the last time. Sit at home on the remnants of my bottom counting the hours – till the next meal. [Pause.] The very thought puts life in me! Forward, before it dies!
[They move on. Dragging feet, panting, thudding stick.]

MRS ROONEY: Now mind, here is the path… Up! … Well done! Now we are in safety and a straight run home.

MR ROONEY: [Without halting, between gasps.] A straight… run! … She calls that … a straight… run! …

MRS ROONEY: Hush! Do not speak as you go along, you know it is not good for your coronary. [Dragging steps, etc.] Just concentrate on putting one foot before the next or whatever the expression is. [Dragging feet, etc.] That is the way, now we are doing nicely.

(Samuel Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays. Grove Press, 1984.)

All That Fall was broadcast by the BBC in 1957 (joy – it’s on Youtube! search for it). In 1957, BBC was in its seventh year of broadcasting The Goon Show (search for it). You could not stage this either:

[Taxi approaches at terrific speed. Jelly thud sound.]

BLUEBOTTLE: Oooh. You’ve taxied me. Look, the Christmas strings coming off my legs.

SEAGOON: Swallow this first-aid book and custard. I’ll have your legs relacquered free and exported to Poland.

BLUEBOTTLE: You’re a fair man, sir … Merry Krudmas.

ECCLES: Oooh, Bottle. What are you doing under that taxi.

BLUEBOTTLE: It ran over me, Eccles.

ECCLES: You must be rich … I can only afford to be run over by buses.

BLUEBOTTLE: Well, my man when you’re in the big money you know, you can do things like this.

ECCLES: You see, one day I’ll have enough money to be run over by a Rolls-Royce with a chauffer.

BLUEBOTTLE: Well, pull me out then.

ECCLES: Right. Hold this.

BLUEBOTTLE: What is it?

ECCLES: I don’t know, but I got it cheap.

SEAGOON: Let me see what you got cheap.

[Tiger growl]

SEAGOON: Good heavens it’s a genuine hand-operated 1914 tiger.

(The Goon Show, No. 250, December 31, 1958, “Battle of Spion Kop.” Eccles played by Spike Milligan, Bluebottle by Peter Sellers, and Seagoon by Harry Secombe. Spike Milligan, More Goon Show Scripts. The Woburn Press, 1973. )

And a bonus for visiting: this Theater Talk interview, in which Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins talk about their New York performances in All That Fall.