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Beckett on Screen

The Television Plays


Jonathan Bignell


Manchester: University Press, 2009*

Hardcover. ix+230 p. ISBN 978-0719064203. £50.00


Reviewed by Lea Sinoimeri

Université du Havre



At the crossroads between Television Studies and Beckett Studies, Beckett on Screen proposes a synthesis between these two critical traditions. British Television Studies, which emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s, have historically marginalised and neglected Beckett’s work for television. Less politicised, Beckett Studies have, on the contrary, become increasingly interested in Beckett’s work for television. However, with very few exceptions, the extant criticism of Beckett’s television plays has analysed the plays as if they were severed from the historical and cultural context of their production and reception. Bignell’s book aims to give Beckett’s work for television a place inside the tradition of Television Studies. On the other hand, it proposes a cultural materialist analysis, keeping its distance from dominant critical discourses in Beckett Studies which approach Beckett’s television work in textual and authorial terms. Audience response, production and broadcasting contexts as well as institutional frameworks are analysed in detail in order to open up new readings of the plays and of their formal innovation. The corpus of works that Bignell takes into his analysis goes from the television plays (Eh Joe, Ghost Trio, …but the clouds…, Nacht und Traüme, Quad), to Beckett’s only work for cinema, Film. There are also many references to the RTE’s Beckett on Film adaptations. However, the aim of Bignell’s book goes beyond the simple reading of Beckett’s plays. As Beckett’s work is discussed in the context of British broadcasting institutions, issues of authority, authorship and canon forming become central to the debate of the book.

Beckett on Screen is a hybrid book. Its operation is ambitious and difficult for it engages in a cross-fertilising practice between two heterogeneous canons and critical practices. It goes against that ‘proprietary protectiveness’ [11] of Beckett’s work which has made academic studies of Beckett into one of the most hierarchical research communities, often unwilling to acknowledge the value of interdisciplinary approaches (an intriguing paradox for an one of the most powerfully interdisciplinary authors of the 20th century). On the other hand, as a contribution to the field of Television Studies it self-consciously takes another risk: i.e. ‘the political risk’ of writing about an author assimilated by a conservative tendency in academic criticism to form a canon of ‘great works’ [6]. Beckett on Screen thus questions the cultural value of Beckett in television culture and beyond, and it demands a reflection on the uses and invocations of authority in academic research. Its effort to disclose separate critical universes and to destabilise mainstream understandings of Beckett’s television work is undoubtedly one of its greatest interests and merits.

However, the strength of the book often turns out to be also its weak point. Beckett on Screen remains too mechanically split between the cultural analyses of the productions and the broadcasting contexts of Beckett’s dramas and their close reading. A tension between a discussion of Beckett’s aesthetics and that of their social and cultural context runs through the book without finding an ultimate fusion. Bignell refuses the ‘orthodox’ chronological and monographic structure based on close readings of the single plays. Nevertheless, the sections where the plays are discussed are often, as a result, too detached from the main argument of the chapters. The analysis strains to give an overview of extant criticism on the plays, without clearly distinguishing Bignell’s own point of view and its originality. Bignell makes claims for Beckett’s significance inside the canon of Television Studies, but he appears hesitant when discussing the institutionalisation of Beckett’s work and the political and pedagogic practices of broadcasting. Moreover, the whole structure of the book lacks a coherent unity. Chapters appear more like separate essays than parts of a single book, and contain too many repetitions of arguments and previously discussed analysis.

That said, when the writing refuses to accept the pre-existing categorisations, the discussion becomes focused and the argument original. Bignell’s excellent reconstruction of the British televisual culture of the second half of the 20th century gives new insights into the reading of the plays, and also into the understanding of the exceptional role that Beckett played (and still plays) inside British broadcasting and academic institutions.

The first chapter offers an analysis of the connections between modernist and avant-garde film and the aesthetics of British television in the second part of the 20th century. It discusses the historical nature of innovation and experiment, placing Beckett’s plays in the foreground of the television trends and production techniques of the period. Bignell shows how the dramas use a combination of resources which relate ambiguously to a ‘theatrical’ television, triggering the assumptions and expectations of the audience but at once disappointing them. He convincingly demonstrates that Beckett’s anachronistic return to theatrical and live recording of the plays is a pseudo-return undertaken with the aim of exploring the possibilities of the television medium. The argument is however far from being a novelty in Beckett criticism. Many of Bignell’s remarks on the audience response to Eh Joe or Film give interesting insights into the works, but they deserve a more accurate analysis if the question of Beckett’s anachronism is to be problematised in an original and unexplored way. Differently, the discussion of Minghella’s adaptation of Play for the Beckett on Film Project suffers a certain inconsistency with the rest of the chapter, and it lacks a proper contextualisation. However, the rich discussion of the shift in the techniques of production of television drama in Britain in the 1960s from a ‘theatrical’ tradition to a more ‘cinematic’ form does offer an important contextualisation of the reflexive use of the medium in Beckett’s television plays. It explains why Beckett’s plays, which were shot in film and in monochrome, and which used long takes and post-production editing rooted in the avant-garde tradition in television, were immediately associated with a history of ‘literary’ or ‘theatrical’ television and radio drama.

The formal experimentation of Beckett’s television plays is analysed in the second chapter against the background of the broadcasting contexts. Through archival work and using evidence from the press of the time, Bignell shows that Beckett’s television plays were made, broadcast and received on the margins of the culture of television drama in Britain. They were exceptional in terms of scheduling, being programmed not in the anthology strands, which became dominant vehicles within the BBC schedules of the 1960s and 1970s, but in art programmes. Moreover, based on high-modernist aesthetics, Beckett’s dramas strongly contrasted with contemporary dramas engaged with contemporary social issues. Bignell shows how television settings and programming affected the canonisation of the authors, thus explaining Beckett’s marginalisation from critical studies of television. The chapter focuses on the paradox implied by the exceptional settings of Beckett’s plays: the plays were offered to the audience as special events, different from the emergent drama culture, but at the same time their formal experimentation marginalised the plays, placing them outside the production and reception contexts. While the central part of the chapter, which focuses mainly on a repetition of the extant criticism of the aesthetics of perception in Film, is disappointing, the discussion of Beckett’s cultural values and the politics of broadcasting of the BBC opens up an original field of reflection on Beckett’s work. Bignell shows well how the production of Beckett’s television dramas should be thought as inseparable from the BBC’s cultural and political agendas. Indeed, associated with high culture, theatre and literature, the production and broadcasting of Beckett’s television work participated in the pedagogical and social aims of public broadcasting, connecting the popular medium of television with high cultural work.

The third chapter expands the discussion of the cultural value of Beckett and the issues of power, authorship and authority. Bignell explores the culture of authorship that surrounded Beckett’s work inside the institutional context of the BBC and that permitted its production. Authorship was established as a mark of value and Beckett’s name and work legitimated the educational and conservational values underlying public service broadcasting. Bignell interestingly highlights how the reverence paid to Beckett by the BBC (and later by Channel 4) gave the author and his collaborators an unusual and exceptional authority in the production of the plays, in contrast to the usual role of the author in television drama. Moreover, Bignell shows how Beckett’s privileged position was supported by the strong connections he had with an intellectual elite of British television comprising personalities such as Martin Esslin and Donald McWhinnie. They directed, commented on and supported Beckett’s plays and Beckett’s link with them gave Beckett access to a powerful professional culture at the BBC. Beckett’s reputation as a prescriptive author and his authorial control and involvement in the production of his plays is interestingly and innovatively discussed inside this rich and complex context of broadcasting policies and networks. Bignell questions a complex network of paradoxes that inform Beckett’s dramas. These plays destabilise authorial control and displace authorship in terms of textual meaning. On the other hand, their television realisation in the specific context of British broadcasting produces a return to authorism.

The fourth chapter considers the aesthetics of vision in Beckett’s work in relation to theories of visual meaning in Television Studies discourses. Bignell claims that Beckett’s work for television and Film can be seen as linking the ‘pedagogic’ strategies of Modernism, which aimed to expand audiences’ intellectual horizons, with a ‘paedocratic’ discourse which captures an understanding of viewing audiences as though they are governed by childlike qualities. Beckett’s televisual work is thus connected to the context of the 1960s and McLuhan’s theories of a revaluation of the medium of television. The argument is intriguing but its discussion leaves space for many ambiguities and contradictions. The chapter explores the question of anachronism and innovation, thus somewhat repeating the issues discussed in the first chapter. Bignell employs the term ‘intertextuality’ to refer to the complex net of allusions that Beckett’s plays make to other artistic and literary traditions, and to other media. For Bignell, intertextuality works as a twofold strategy, both connecting Beckett’s works to different genres and modes of television, theatre, painting and film, and rendering these ‘sources’ illusory and volatile. In this sense, Bignell’s aim is to show that, despite their elite cultural positioning, Beckett’s dramas ‘are self-consciously playful about their use of dramatic conventions and their reflexive invocation of television forms as well as textual elements drawn from other media’ [159]. According to Bignell, Beckett’s self-reflexive uses of the medium, which have been widely debated in Beckett criticism, should be read historically and culturally as a pedagogic strategy for teaching media literacy to adults in the way that programme makers aim to teach it to children. Still, the argument sounds more of a statement than a demonstration. According to Bignell’s reading, Beckett’s televisual plays remain torn between a high modernist aesthetics and a politics of spectatorship.

The last chapter confirms the author’s unease with the practices of spectatorship in Beckett’s television plays. Bignell highlights the fact that there was a dramatic divergence between the reception of Beckett’s television dramas by ordinary viewers and professional critics. Archival research into audience reports shows that “from the early 60s to the early 90s Beckett’s work was disastrous in terms of audience ratings, competitive audience share, or retention of the audience across an evening’s broadcasting” [183]. In contrast, press reaction from professional critics was in general very positive. As Bignell underlines, this powerful but tiny audience of cultural commentators legitimated the BBC’s production and broadcasting of Beckett’s television plays. If the BBC was to present the best of arts and culture as defined by professional television personnel, Beckett’s cultural prestige could not but legitimate its remit. Bignell identifies Beckett’s engagement with audience activity as one of the most significant aspects of his work. According to him, the way in which Beckett’s television dramas blur the boundaries between theatrical and cinematic devices opens the possibility of self-consciousness about the medium of television performance. At the same time, Bignell’s analysis stresses the fact that Beckett’s experimentalism does not have an anti-hegemonic stance but pursues a dialogue with the institutions of the arts in which it participates. Although criticism has recognised in Beckett’s dramas the noble aim of turning the audience from passive to active viewers, Bignell states that ‘historical evidence shows that it repeatedly failed and that in fact it was support from institutionally powerful television producers and cultural opinion formers that brought Beckett’s dramas to the screen’ [199].

As already stated, Bignell’s is an ambitious effort. Because it aims at being over exhaustive, it runs the risk of not being sufficiently accurate. Nonetheless, it is an innovative foray into the field of both Television Studies and Beckett Studies. If it does not entirely succeed in its venture, it undoubtedly opens the path for further studies to come.


*Paperback reissue, 2012. ISBN 978-0719064210. £11.99.



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