Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours

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Book Review Editor: Molly O'Brien Castro

(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
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GRAAT: Getting to the bone
A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


Jonathan Bignell, Beckett on Screen: The Television Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), £50, 208 pages, ISBN: 978-0719064203—Anthony Cordingley, Université Paris VIII —Vincennes-Saint-Denis.

Television historians have shown little interest in Beckett’s short television plays. With their opaque, heuristic aura, and inscrutable subjects, these plays have traditionally been interpreted more like video art than television per se. Jonathan Bignell’s Beckett on Screen: The Television Plays is, however, the first assessment of them from the perspective of their production within the British television industry and reception by television audiences and critics. The focus here is not on the television plays as texts and Beckett as author, but rather the cultural mechanisms and aspirations within British television and BBC programming which allowed for such plays to be produced at all. Bignell’s study therefore opens a new realm to Beckett criticism, for Beckett scholars are by and large trained in literary interpretation and have read these pieces as extensions of the thematic concerns within Beckett’s other writing. They read the television plays as texts akin to visual poems, whose medium and audience can be conveniently overlooked. On the other hand, the tradition of British television criticism has been dominated by sociological imperatives—the traditions of Raymond Williams and John Ellis, cultural studies and feminist analyses—whose interest has not been drawn to one-off programs or dramas, but to television series, especially soaps, and hospital, police and other popular dramas, which develop followings and facilitate a measuring of their impact upon cultural politics. On the other hand, television plays which have proved popular subjects for Television studies, such as the work of Ken Loach or James MacTaggart, are those concerned with the public sphere of employment and the workplace, government and state institutions, or with the politics of family life, race and power relations. These are not the immediate focus of Beckett’s television plays and Bignell does not pretend they are: his objective is to draw Beckett’s work out from the margins of television historiography to show how a deep appreciation of the production and reception of these pieces of television is able to reveal the ideological mechanisms and technical capacities governing decisions about what could be produced with public money for British audiences. Conversely, he shows how such an understanding enriches the possibilities for interpretive textual work by Beckett scholars. This dual objective is clearly at the forefront of Bignell’s mind throughout the entire book as he deftly balances and addresses the concerns of these different fields of research.

Beckett on Screen is clearly written, accessible and free of unnecessary jargon—albeit I counted some half-dozen typographical errors. The book’s organisation demonstrates Bignell’s concern not with individual textual analysis but the materiality of Beckett’s television production: with an introduction and afterword, its five chapters are devoted to production, broadcasting contexts, institutions and authorship, intertexts, and evaluations. These sections are devoted to forging a space for Beckett’s work to be understood as drama for television and not video art, with the additional understanding that “since television is made in and by institutions for institutional distribution, it cannot by definition have an avant-garde” [67]. Nevertheless, it is clear that Beckett was perceived as an artist by the institutions which employed him, Bignell detailing the extraordinary liberties to which he was privileged and reminding us that these television plays were often broadcast within arts programme strands. Bignell is most penetrating when dissecting the cosmopolitan British cultural elite, whose powerful networks ensured the financing and broadcasting of Beckett’s television plays. For them Beckett was a “totem” of their shared European knowledge, taste and experience, and they put faith in not only his work’s “export potential” [78] but also its “cultural value” [79]. This critique extends to Beckett’s late adoption by certain Irish cultural institutions in their Beckett on Film project and repackaging into attractive boxed DVD sets full of reproductions of all of the theatre pieces remade by well-known film-makers. This, for Bignell, is the high-brow equivalent of franchised Irish pubs or a touring Riverdance show.

Despite such institutional pressures, Bignell finds Beckett’s television plays to be playful in their use of dramatic conventions and their reflexive invocation of television forms: they fulfil a pedagogical role in “teaching” the audience how to read them and, at the same, critique the conventions of the medium they, the audience, are experiencing [159]. The point is valid, though coopting Beckett into a tradition of the theory of media empowerment—a comparison is made with Marshall McLuhan—is perhaps drawing too long a bow. More useful is the documentation of research into the plays' audiences and their reactions; the general public most often formed the conclusion that these works are “dense and boring” [179] and “excruciatingly dull and dreary to watch” [181]. Bignell is adept in exploring how audiences were conditioned to watching realist drama, how such drama is the province of Television studies, and how, on the other hand, Beckett’s television work has not only been appreciated by a critical tradition growing out of literary modernism, but that television professionals believed themselves to be supporting a European modernist whose television was more aligned with painting, cinema and sculpture than it was with addressing a mass audience. There is indeed a good deal of lively, and eminently readable, anecdotal material to lighten the theoretical discussion, like the pertinent discussion of how Beckett’s Film found a venue for its opening at the 1965 New York Film Festival because of the Keaton-mania which was sweeping the city at that time. Fans of Buster Keaton, who plays the leading role in Film, nevertheless “sat there, bored, annoyed, baffled, and cheated of the Keaton they had come to see” [191]. Documenting such reactions is useful for contemporary critics, who might be prone to forget that Beckett’s name did not always inspire such attentive audiences as it does today. Furthermore, confronted with audience resistance to Beckett’s television drama, Bignell stakes a claim for its importance in the fact that it includes the audience in its own form, and that, unlike the realist mode of British drama, its mode of address is directed to the audience. As such, Beckett’s drama represents the process of viewing and thus the constitution of the audience for the text [195]. The argument is not revolutionary in Beckett studies, which has long discussed the importance of self-reflexivity across the entirety of Beckett’s oeuvre. However, Bignell is the first to extend the consequences of Beckett’s self-reflexive art into a discourse about the material conditions of television drama, thus helping us to observe and feel Beckett’s art “hollowing out” the space between television and viewer, inviting the audience to participate in this different, discursive space between itself and the television set.

© 2011 Anthony Cordingley & GRAAT











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