The Air is Full of Our Cries: Samuel Beckett’s Voices

Samuel Beckett, 1961
(Portrait on wood panel)
BY Reginald Gray
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In July 2006, I finally made my pilgrimage to Beckett’s grave in Montparnasse cemetery. The place had the lapidary stillness of all graveyards, despite the clamour of bronze and the many shrines to France’s artistic and intellectual dead. Picking my way through the thicket of dolorous staturary, the graves of Serge Gainsbourg (miniature bottles of vodka and teddy bears) and Baudelaire (sheet music for Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale), I managed to find Beckett’s recumbent grey slab, sober trace. Others had made it here before me — the grave was strewn with scraps of paper and metro tickets featuring misquotations of the work, more sheet music (Albinoni), coins, stones, even feathers — though the latter might have been dropped by the birds inhabiting the overhanging trees. Votive testaments to people’s impulse to touch or press, made demands of the dead, now defenceless. I too had come to pay homage to a spirit he shunned. An acacia bent over the grave, shadowy fronds dancing on the marble; a warm breeze rippled the sandy avenues between the mausoleums.

Later, walking in Montparnasse, I thought of how it must have been in the 1930s, when all of Paris packed dance-halls such as Le Select or Le Dôme to hear jazz orchestras play the latest music blown in from the Caribbean or the West Indies: the Biguine, the Rhumba, the Java. I imagined him walking on the boulevard, an insomniac in search of whiskey and talk, his voice “like a marmoset sitting on [his] shoulder, with its bushy tail, keeping [him] company” (From An Abandoned Work). A life spent trying to hear and capture the voice of writing, the dilemma of a self enclosed with a babel of voices, struggling to determine its own voice in the cacophony.

Estragon: All the dead voices.
Vladimir: They make a noise like wings.
Estragon: Like leaves.
Vladimir: Like sand.
Estragon: Like leaves.
Vladimir: They all speak together.
Estragon: Each one to itself.
Vladimir: Rather they whisper.
Estragon: They rustle.
Vladimir: They murmur.
Estragon: They rustle.
Vladimir: What do they say?
Estragon: They talk about their lives.
Vladimir: To have lived is not enough for them.
Estragon: They have to talk about it.

— Act II, Waiting for Godot

Nathalie Léger, in her book, Les Vies silencieuses de Samuel Beckett (Éditions Allia, 2006) quotes a friend who heard Beckett remark that what he liked about the radio version of Marguerite Duras’s play Le Square, was “les petits pâtés de sable des voix, des timbres, placés tantôt à terre, tantôt dans l’espace” (“the little sandcastles of voices, of timbres, sometimes placed on the ground, sometimes in space”). What Beckett was drawn to in this production was the effect of deracinated voices coming out of the dark, unencumbered by the trappings of character. This was his desire for his own theatre: that it represent the movement of voices inside and outside the skull, an indeterminate space where the spectator is never sure if she is on the inside, imagining, or on the outside, seeing and hearing. Words were, for Beckett, a necessary stain upon the silence. “I don’t find solitude agonizing,” he once said to Nancy Cunard, “holes open up in paper and take me fathoms from anywhere.” Representation of these fathoms, of the compulsion to tear open the silence, to draw the auditor/spectator into the vastness separating thought from its objects, was perhaps his primary aim for his theatre. The space between is filled with voices, particles of dust moving in air: “I am all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words, with no ground for their settling” (The Unnamable). If the self exists at all, it is in the mobile processes of language that it is to be located.

Beckett’s work for the stage was a continuation of his prose project: an exploration of the mystery of the voice — it origin, its location and its nature, whether a marker of discrete essential identity or a cultural echo, the voice of the speaking subject or the point of intersection of “all the dead voices.” In the later short prose, and in the plays from Krapp’s Last Tape onwards, there is increasing dissolution of the separations and distinctions between fiction and drama, as Beckett begins to liberate the voice from the page, to stage the narrating voice. From An Abandoned Work, a piece of prose that was broadcast by BBC3 in 1957 as a radio play, inhabits the borders between narrative and theatre. The source of the voice evoking three separate days in the life of an old man is not clear, its role as a marker of being or authenticity dubious. Spatial and temporal settings are equally ambiguous. The piece is a model for all of Beckett’s later writing, in which untethered voices move in indeterminate spaces.

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