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Articulations of voice and medium in Beckett’s screen work

Bignell, J. ORCID: (2021) Articulations of voice and medium in Beckett’s screen work. In: De Vos, L., Hori Tanaka, M. and Johnson, N. (eds.) Beckett’s Voices / Voicing Beckett. Themes in Theatre, 12. Brill, Leiden, pp. 280-294. ISBN 9789004468382

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1163/9789004468382_021


This chapter approaches the topic of voice in three distinct but interrelated ways, adopting the term articulation to bring together analyses of the role of voice and the issue of linkage between media forms in Beckett’s media work. The first section addresses how Beckett came to have a voice in radio and television in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain, through dependencies on gatekeepers who could grant or deny access to media institutions for him and his fellow cultural producers. Beckett was given a voice because he was recognised as a writer whose work was worthy of broadcast to a national audience, and onto whom a constellation of meanings and expectations was projected by those who facilitated it at the BBC. However, the significance of voice is complicated by the reflexivity about sound in Beckett’s first original work for broadcast, the radio drama All That Fall (1957). It already questions the notion of voice as speech authorised by its origins in living things located in real places. The chapter shows how, in subsequent work, this occlusion of voice as a marker of presence develops further at the same time as Beckett’s dramatic motifs and interests remain consistent and include relationships between body and voice, voice and place, and voice and time. However, because of Beckett’s refusal to talk publicly about himself as an artist or about his work, his own voice did not provide a parallel discourse that would explicate them. Beckett’s lack of speech did not prevent the development of his authorial voice, however, and indeed made his work seem all the more articulate to others so that, for example, when given the Nobel Prize the awarding committee’s press release could summarise his contribution to civilisation in a brief formal citation. Beckett could be easily spoken about even if he did not speak. The second part of the chapter focuses on the relationship between image and sound in Beckett’s work on film, in the cinema project Film (1964) and the filmed adaptation of the theatre piece Play as Comédie (1966). In each of them, though in different ways, voice is dissociated from the performance of the actors on screen. The two film projects explored relationships between image and the spoken word, and the chapter develops this by discussing the dramas Beckett wrote for the television screen, in which a voice addresses or discusses the characters. Those voices have close, if also ambivalent, relationships with camera point of view. Voice and image are joined by music in some of Beckett’s screen dramas, and in each case music also has implied relationships, but uncertain ones, with voice and camera. This issue of how voice is related to other audio-visual components develops the concept of articulation further, by expanding on its implication of linkage but also the maintenance of separation between one element and another to which it is joined. The chapter ends by arguing that Beckett’s work gave voice to potentialities in the audio-visual media that questioned ideas of technical progress and development. The circumstances of production of Beckett’s television work require an account of its use of studio settings and restricted spaces, because they are so insistently atavistic. Beckett’s work speaks about the history of the medium. While Beckett himself was interested in the material practices and technologies of production in each medium because he was keen to understand and use their aesthetic possibilities, his screen work consciously returned to aesthetic forms that appeared out of date. The separation of voice from on-screen performance in the television plays is the most prominent of these, alongside decisions like shooting almost all of his work in black and white rather than colour and using very long duration shots (long takes) with little editing. Working in the studio in these ways was anomalous even at the start of Beckett’s career in television, though it paralleled styles of non-commercial filmmaking at the time and especially in French radical cinema. The dissociation of voice from bodily presence was both a throwback to early silent cinema but also a gesture towards the self-consciously contemporary nouvelle vague, thus making an articulated relationship with cinema past and present, linking and joining again.

Item Type:Book or Report Section
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Arts and Communication Design > Film, Theatre & Television
ID Code:97887
Uncontrolled Keywords:Beckett, film, television, BBC, radio, voice, drama


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