Opinions vary as to whether the work succeeds. Hugh Kenner calls it “Beckett’s most difficult work” and yet maintains that the piece “coheres to perfection,” John Pilling disagrees, remarking that Embers “is the first of Beckett’s dramatic works that seems to lack a real centre,” whereas Richard N. Coe considers the play “not only minor, but one of [Beckett’s] very few failures.” Anthony Cronin records in his biography of Beckett that “Embers met with a mixed reception [but tempers this comment by noting that] the general tone of English criticism was somewhat hostile to Beckett” at the time.
The author’s own view was that it was a “rather ragged” text. He said that it was “not very satisfactory, but I think just worth doing … I think it just gets by for radio.”
For all his personal reservations the play won the RAI prize in the 1959 Prix Italia contest, not, as has been often reported, “the actual Prix Italia … which went to John Reeve’s play, Beach of Strangers.”
Henry starts to talk, a single word, “on,” followed by the sea again, followed by the voice – louder and more insistent this time, repeating the same word, as it will say, then repeat as a command, the words “stop” and “down.” Each time, Henry obediently yet reluctantly does what his voice first says, then tells him to do, he stops and sits down on the shingle. Throughout the play the sea acts like a character in its own right (much as the light in Play does).
He imagines his father, whom he describes as “old … blind and foolish”, sitting beside him on the beach and addresses the whole opening monologue to him, apart from a single aside to the audience, but the father never once responds. His father could never stay away from the sea and it seems neither can his son. “The sea presents an antithetical image to Henry. He must stay near it, and yet he attempts to distance himself from its sound.” Even when he finally received his inheritance he only relocated to the other side of the bay; it has been a great many years since he actually swam in it. He tried once going to landlocked Switzerland but still couldn’t get the sound of the sea out of his head.
To drown out the sound, rather than seek out company, he began making up stories but could never finish any of them. He remembers “ a great one” and starts to tell it:
Henry tells his father that, after a time, his stories were not company enough and he began feeling the need for someone from his past to be with him. He then continues:
Henry suddenly stops his story and jumps to the last time he saw his father alive. His father’s eventual disappearance followed an angry interchange between the two of them. He wanted Henry to go swimming with him but Henry refuses and so the last words his father ends up saying to him are: “A washout, that’s what you are, a washout!” Whether his father was accidentally washed out to sea and drowned or deliberately killed himself is something no one knows for sure. Understandably Henry has punished himself for years over his decision not to go with him.
His relationship with his daughter had not been good either, a clingy child and, as we discover later, not particularly proficient or interested in anything she was required to do; Henry blames the “horrid little creature” for the break-up of his marriage. He re-enacts going for a walk with her and how he ended up reducing the girl to tears when she refuses to let go of his hand.
Henry treats his Addie in much the same way his father appears to have treated him. He remembers: “That was always the way, walk all over the mountains with you talking and talking and then suddenly mum and home in misery and not a word to a soul for a week.” “The consequent judgement that Henry was a ‘sulky little bastard, better off dead’ is consistent with his father’s final verdict of his son as a ‘washout’.”
Out of the blue Henry calls out to his estranged, possibly ex, probably dead wife, Ada.
Before this the two engage in quasi-domestic small talk. Ada wants to know where their daughter, Addie, is. Henry says she is with her music master. She chides him for sitting on the cold stones and offers to put her shawl under him, which he allows. She asks if he’s wearing his long johns but Henry is difficult about answering her. The sound of hooves distracts him. Ada makes a joke about horses and tries to get him to laugh. He then returns to his old preoccupation, the sound of the sea. He wants to go but Ada says they can’t because they’re waiting on Addie. This triggers the first evocation.
Ada suggests that he consult Holloway about his talking. This was a source of some embarrassment to her when they were together. She cites an instance where she has to explain to their daughter why her father was talking to himself in the lavatory. She can’t understand why such “a lovely peaceful gentle soothing sound” should upset him so and refuses to believe that his talking helps drown it out. He tells he that he’s even taken to “walk[ing] about with [a] gramophone” but forget it this day.
He reminds Ada that it was on this very beach they had sex for the first time. She’d shown great reluctance and they had to wait a long time before the coast was clear. She did not get pregnant right away however and it was years before they had Addie. He wonders what age the girl is now but – unexpectedly for a mother – Ada says she doesn’t know. He proposes going for a row, “to be with my father”, he tells her but, again, she reminds him that their daughter will be coming soon and would be upset to find him gone.
Henry explains to Ada that his father doesn’t talk with him like she does. She is not surprised and predicts that a day will come when there will be no one left and he will be alone with only his own voice for company. She remembers meeting his family in the midst of having a row, his father, mother and a sister threatening to kill herself. The father storms out slamming the door, as he did the day he disappeared for good (if this is in fact not the same day), but she passes him later sitting staring out to sea (bear in mind Henry said his father was blind) in a posture that reminded her of Henry himself.
“Is this rubbish a help to you, Henry? [she wonders out loud.] “I can try and go on a little if you wish.” He fails to answer though and so she slips out of his consciousness.
Resigning himself to being alone Henry picks up the Bolton story from where he left off:
Henry is like the “writer-protagonists of the novels, using their speech/writing to fill the moments until death.” But he finds he can’t go on. He curses, gets to his feet, walks over to the water’s edge where he takes out and consults a pocket diary. With the exception of an appointment with the “plumber at nine [to attend to] the waste” pipe his future is empty. The play ends with no resolution other than the certainty that the next day and the next day will be the same as the previous ones.
Henry, the central character in this play, cannot find the words to articulate his situation and fills in the blanks with what he can to see if he can make sense of things. In this context the play is its own metaphor. Words have become redundant but they are all Henry has to explain the unexplainable. If critics get frustrated because there are no answers then they’ve got the point.
The sound of the sea dominates the play but it is not an accurate representation and deliberately so. Henry warns us that the sea sound effects are not perfect and this casts doubt as to whether he is even on the beach at all; perhaps everything in the play is taking place within his head.
The pioneering sound engineer Desmond Briscoe was responsible for the sound of the sea in the original BBC production. This was his second collaboration with Beckett (he also worked on All That Fall) only this time he “utilized a more traditionally ‘musical’ approach, moulding the abstract sound of the sea using distinct pitches.”
“Henry also demands certain sound effects to provide a contrast to the monotony of the sea. He twice asks for the sound of hooves, hoping that the 'ten-ton mammoth' can be trained to mark time; have it 'stamp all day' and 'tramp the world down'. He similarly asks for a drip, as if the sea could be drained by the sound effect.”
Like many of Beckett’s characters (e.g. Molloy, May in Footfalls), Henry is a writer or at the very least a storyteller, albeit by his own admission, a poor one never actually finishing anything he starts. Fortunately he doesn’t need to depend on his writing for a living. He may or may not commit what he has written to paper but he performs the core function of a writer, the creation of stories. And as a writer he also needs readers or listeners to hear what he has to say. Like the old woman in Rockaby he only has himself and the voices in his head left to acknowledge his existence however pathetic that existence has become.
Henry is undoubtedly a tormented soul. He interrogates the past rigorously but never gets round to actually verbalising what is really on his mind: How did his father die? Was he, in any way, responsible for that death? Is vital information missing or has he repressed it? Is this why he can never complete any of his stories because they are all really the same story and are all missing that something? His life is like a sentence (pun intended) – it reached a comma with his father’s death and he has been unable to satisfactorily finish it. He has no “professional obligations”, no familial ties and now not even a woman to justify his hanging around this place like, as he puts it, an “old grave I cannot tear myself away from”.
The images (symbols and metaphors) that spring to mind when people see the sea (another pun Beckett cannot have failed to notice) have become somewhat clichéd over the years and Beckett takes full advantage of this fact; literature (not forgetting the visual arts) has done much of his groundwork for him.
The sound of the sea continues throughout the play always “moving according to the temporal laws of the tide” suggesting a linearality to the time line but the action is grouped by association rather than presented in a chronological order. The omnipresent sea is less of a natural phenomenon than another mental ghost haunting him no matter where he goes, even reacting to events (e.g. during the sex scene) by getting louder; it clearly has its own voice or perhaps it is all that remains of his father’s voice since it represents his grave. Either way the sea is a constant reminder of death and Henry’s attempts to drown out its sound “seem to manifest the typical Beckett antithesis: the desire for death and the desire to keep it at bay by continued speech”.
Beckett’s own father (actually a superb swimmer) died at home, of a heart attack it has to be said, on June 26, 1933. In October his mother rented “a little house by the sea just beyond Dalkey Harbour. Beckett accompanied her, laden with his books, manuscripts and typewriter. But he never settled down there and questioned ‘how people have the nerve to live so near, on the sea. It moans in one’s dreams at night.’” The beach there – “by contract with most Irish beaches – is notoriously composed of shingle and pebble”.
In May 1954 he received a phone call from his sister-in-law to let him know that his brother, Frank, had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Beckett spent several months there up until his brother’s eventual death in September. “Most evenings he walked alone after dinner along the seashore below the house”
“But there is a very good reason for the omission, which is that, unlike the theatre, radio makes it possible to represent characters by means of metonymic sound images: The ghost of Henry's father is indeed "heard" throughout the play: not only when his son acts the role of medium, imitating such parental exhortations as "Are you coming for a dip?", but also in the recurrent "Please! PLEASE!" that Bolton addresses to Holloway, and, most important, in the voice of the sea itself.”
Henry tells us at the very start of the play that his father is blind and yet when Ada passes him she makes mention that he did not see her. As Henry is not only talking to his father at the start it is also true that he is talking to a “blind” audience too. Is the man actually blind or even figuratively blind? Perhaps Ada was unaware that he was blind though think seems unlikely.
“As their names suggest, Ada and Addie may not be wife and daughter at all, not even imagined wife and daughter, only father-surrogates: Ada is a near anagram of Dad and Addie a rhyme for Daddie. And Henry himself? Is he perhaps just another of the fictional characters? Ruby Cohn notes that ‘Henry is a name derived from German Heimrih, meaning head of the family’ he too is a father or father or father-surrogate – his own. Why should the figure of the father loom so large in every element of the play? Because the father, the head of the family, is its creator, and it is creation which is Henry’s obligation.”
A fuller appreciation of the story of Bolton and Holloway helps with an overall understanding of the rest of the play. Needless to say opinions differ. It is reminiscent of the story May tells in Footfalls where aspects of her and her mother are recast as “Amy” and “Mrs Winter”.
Lawley’s contention could equally be valid in that “Henry is losing his creative impersonality and is consequently moving inexorably into identity with his fictional creation, Bolton.”
Whereas most scholars take Bolton’s begging to suggest he wants to die, Michael Robinson, in The Long Sonata of the Dead, puts forward a simpler interpretation:
The sad fact is that company is not the real answer. It is still only an anaesthetic, numbing the pain. In the Beckettian universal construct sadly death rarely brings any relief either.
Whether Holloway is a real person or the character in the story even based on a real person is unclear.
This option offers a simpler explanation of the story. If it is based on his father’s seeking some kind of escape from a life that has become unendurable, with a worthless son, a suicidal daughter and possibly an argumentative wife all symptoms of it, then Holloway could simply be a personification of any means of release. That the story is missing key elements is due to the fact that Henry himself doesn’t have these pieces. As his life has dragged on in its own version of unendurability it is only obvious that he will start to relate more and more to the figure of Bolton. If, at this point, Henry were able to end his story, he would be “going beyond the confines of his own condition, of which his story is, in all essential aspects, a duplicate. The moment the story can be finished, there will be no one there to finish it'”.
Their nature of their dialogue is odd too – quite civilized – considering the comment Henry made just before evoking her presence: “Ada too, conversation with her, that was something, that’s what hell will be like.” Evidently he is remembering better times here. Katharine Worth conjectures that Ada represents a kind of muse, “a hint stressed in the sound of her voice – ‘low [and] remote throughout’ – and in the curious fact that she has been present in some mysterious way before he spoke her name.” He calls on her because he needs her, his father doesn’t answer and he is struggling with his story on his own.
Roger Blin, in an interview on 2 March 1975, in Paris, said: "Beckett absolutely didn't want me to try to do Embers for the theatre because, when you listen, you don't know if Ada exists or not, [or] whether she only exists in the imagination of the character Henry.
Ada is “immensely there”, though, her personality is allowed to shine throughout her conversation with Henry; she doesn’t merely respond, she initiates lines of thought, she nags him like a mother with her list of don’ts, jokes with him, reproves him in a matter-of-fact way and refuses to mollycoddle him. She doesn’t appear to take him very seriously either. Henry is obviously incapable of imagining her any other way than how she was when they were together, further evidence of his declining creative powers. Parts of their conversation, for example, sound as if they are simply reenactments of things said to each other when they were a couple but noticeably not all.
Her advice to Henry that he seeks medical assistance from Holloway, assuming him to be “a figure in the fiction he [has been] weaving”, would add weight to the argument that Ada is both part imagined as well as part remembered.
Having performed her function to the best of her plainly limited abilities she leaves him to it with a down-to-earth, “Is this rubbish a help to you, Henry? … No? Then I think I’ll be getting back?”
Beckett could never be called an “easy” author and one of the reasons for his success is undoubtedly the pleasure that comes from finding hidden meanings in his works even those you thought you were familiar with. So why did Beckett believe this particular text too hard?
The main problem here is the density of the writing. Beckett’s plays never provide all the answers; there are gaps where the audience has to do some digging and some filling in. In Embers there are a few too many plot holes and far too many clues pointing in all directions for such a short piece to bear.