Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright once wanted to perform Samuel Beckett's 1956 drama ``All That Fall'' on stage, but the playwright -- despite those actors' dazzling credentials -- decided against it. The reason: It is not simply a drama, but a radio drama -- the first one Beckett wrote specifically for that medium -- and its effect rests, Beckett has pointed out, ``on the whole thing's coming out of the dark.''
On April 13, you can see -- or rather, hear -- what he meant, as the rich radio voices and sound effects wash over you the way Beckett said he wanted them to. American Public Radio will broadcast the American premi`ere of this pungent, powerful tragicomedy on that date (check local listings) in honor of the Nobel Prize winner's 80th birthday.
It's the first of a five-part Beckett Festival of Radio Plays to be produced over time, and brings together a superbly qualified cast, including Billie Whitelaw and David Warrilow, the only two living actors for whom Beckett has written texts. They are under the direction of a leader in modern radio drama, Everett C. Frost, and the festival has used several internationally noted Beckett authorities, in addition to what are billed as ``humanist consultants.''
``All That Fall'' is also being aired from the American sector of West Berlin, and later it will be re-aired in the United States with a 30-minute companion documentary about the production's background.
With all this support, one would expect splendid results, and the program does not disappoint. It combines the best elements of the medium itself and of the dramatist's art. Beckett himself helped guide this production's sound and style, and the sounds are indeed strikingly effective. They begin with barnyard animals and then move into dialogue, as decrepit old Maddy Rooney makes her way on foot down a road to a railway station in Ireland to meet her blind husband, Dan.
On the radio, you can really focus on vocal timbres and inflections, and especially on Miss Whitelaw's use of the speaking voice as a virtuoso instrument in venting Maddy's passionate gripes against her troubles. Miss Whitelaw's reading -- which ranges fromlyricism to bawdy cackles and birdlike screeches of despair -- is wry and mocking, with a jaunty fatalism. Although the listener is too aware at times of how hard Miss Whitelaw milks the lines, you are never in any doubt that she and the array of characters she meets are real Irish people.
There are more of these characters, in fact, than in any of Beckett's other published plays, and they form an engrossing -- and often uproariously funny -- backdrop for Maddy's bill of particulars against her lot. Her bitter insights are gained within the naturalism of her own rustic world. Beckett does not take these people and tumble them about in an absurdist's kaleidoscope -- making them unrecognizable in an effort to reveal dazzling new perspectives. Instead he wrings philosophical juices -- sometimes humorous, sometimes despairing -- from realistic ingredients.
Listener beware! As Maddy meets these characters, there are mordant ironies lurking in every other turn of phrase. Beckett leads listeners into plain dialogue like lambs to the philosophical slaughter -- then springs the trap. Maggie's former admirer, Mr. Slocum, offers a lift: ``Are you going in my direction?'' ``I am, Mr. Slocum,'' answers Maddy. ``We all are.'' While he's helping her up into his car, Slocum says ``I may not get you up, but I warrant you we'll get you down.'' And after a ``narrow squeak'' with a passing car, Maddy says: ``It's suicide to be abroad,'' then asks ``but what is it to be at home?''
When Dan arrives by train -- after some unsettling delays typical of Beckett -- the humor and discontent heighten. Dan is played by Mr. Warrilow, whose marvelous Irish inflections fairly rattle the air. In his comments on life and people, he punctures pretense with gleeful panache. Is it disingenuousness, you wonder, or is it the natural man seeing through the emperor's clothes of civilization's poses?
Either way, it's a delight to the ear as he and Maddy scold fate and quarrel over the minutiae of their lives, with Maddy launching into poetic reflections. Beckett even seems to be mocking his own verbal efforts at skewering life. ``I use but the simplest words, I hope, yet I sometimes find my way of speaking very bizarre,'' says Maddy. Later Dan says, ``Do you know, Maddy, sometimes one would think you were struggling with a dead language . . . I confess I have it [that feeling] sometimes myself, when I happen to overhear what I am saying.'' Maddy answers: ``Well, you know, it will be dead in time, just like our own poor dear Gaelic. There is that to be said.''
At one point Maddy says ``Oh, if you had my eyes, you would understand. The things they have seen, and not looked away'' -- then comically blows her nose.
By the drama's end, big questions have indeed been faced with no blinking, however bleak the potential answers. Maggie and Dan have indicted the wrongs of fortune and now are forging on. Who knows where, or why -- that's not Beckett's subject. But they are forging on.