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The Old Tune

by Samuel Beckett

The Play

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The Old Tune is not an original work by Samuel Beckett. It is what one might call a free translation, the adaptation of a radio play entitled La Manivelle by Robert Pinget (*1919). Pinget, better known perhaps as one of the key representatives of the nouveau roman, was one of Beckett's closest friends. This is evidenced by several instances of contacts and cooperation between the two writers. In 1957, Pinget undertook a translation of Beckett's radio play All That Fall, which found Beckett's approval; in 1960 Pinget's play Lettre Morte was presented on a double bill with Krapp's Last Tape at the Théâtre Récamier in Paris; also in 1960 the B.B.C. Third Programme first broadcast The Old Tune, as 'translated' by Samuel Beckett; in 1965/66 Beckett directed Pinget's L'Hypothèse (and it was quite a rare thing for Beckett to direct any work other than his own).

Any attempt to categorise Beckett's efforts with regard to La Manivelle already points to the mysteries as well as the attractions of The Old Tune. The play is less than a re-working and more than a literal translation of the original. It could perhaps be best described as the transfer of the original into an Irish idiom. The indeterminacy is deliberate; it is an Irish idiom which fails or deliberately avoids to establish definite temporal and spatial associations that would allow one to say that the play is set in the Ireland of the 1950s or so. (Some of the place-names mentioned are definitely un-Irish and the fact that in the fictional world of the play divorce is treated as a rather normal social phenomenon also suggests a different context. On the other hand, there are associations which strike an autobiographical note and make reference to the country of Beckett's youth: the "Dee Dyan Button," the first car that Cream and Gorman had ever seen, was a De Dion Bouton, a stylish type of car, and Beckett's father was the first to own one in Ireland.)

All this spatio-temporal vagueness may indicate that total emphasis is on the verbal exchanges between the two characters and on the type of idiom employed.

The two old men reminisce about "the dim distant past," their nearest and dearest and people they knew long, long ago. They are united in their condemnation of the general progress of science and civilisation. They comment on the declining standards in articles of everyday life as much as they exchange platitudes about the good old days. The following piece of dialogue is highly typical:

Cream: My dear Gorman do you know what it is I'm going to tell you, all this speed do you know what it is has the whole place ruinated, no living with it any more, the whole place ruinated, even the weather. [Roar of engine.] Ah when you think of the springs in our time remember the springs we had, the heat there was in them, and the summers remember the summers would destroy you with the heat.

Gorman: Do I remember, there was one year back there seems like yesterday must have been round 95 when we were still out at Cruddy, didn't we water the roof of the house every evening with the rubber jet to have a bit of cool in the night, yes summer 95.

Cream: That would surprise me Gorman, remember in those days the rubber hose was a great luxury a great luxury, wasn't till after the war the rubber hose.

However, they also contradict each other continually: their respective memories of people and incidents are widely diverging, and their efforts to explain away, clear up or at least reduce the differences in their remembrances of things past make up the body of this short play. And if one were to isolate a theme it would probably be the unreliability and the progressive decline of human memory with age.

In terms of literary history, The Old Tune appears as nothing less than a hoax, a sending up of the whole tradition of "paddywhackery" and "Irish bulls," i.e. the Irish comic tradition of linguistic stereotyping. Beckett's "translation" is a pastiche, if not a parody of linguistic "stage-Irishry," as it achieves its most glorious manifestations in the highly stylised language of Synge's Mayo peasants ("Synge-song" as James Joyce called it) and in the verbal excesses of O'Casey's Dublin characters. In rhetorical terms we find a markedly significant incident of hyperbole, platitudes, ellipsis, and any kind of catachretic, i.e. unorthodox, convention-breaking use of language (as amply demonstrated by the passage quoted above.)

We may take another cue from our mentioning of Sean O'Casey, as, in 1934, Beckett published a review of Windfalls, a volume of miscellaneous texts by O'Casey. In it Beckett very poignantly identifies the essence and strength of O'Casey the playwright: Beckett gives O'Casey credit for discerning "the principle of disintegration in even the most complacent solidities." In dramatic and theatrical terms this is an elegant paraphrase of the principles of knockabout and farce. Beckett writes, if "Juno and the Paycock, as seems likely, is his [O'Casey's] best work so far, it is because it communicates most fully this dramatic dehiscence, mind and world come asunder in irreparable dissociation."

If we read The Old Tune as a farce which dramatizes the 'dehiscence' (i.e. the falling apart) of old age and memory, its movement of entropy seems to follow a line remarkably similar to the one diagnosed by Captain Boyle at the end of O'Casey's play - a diagnosis as succinct as it is platitudinous in its reference to chaos and the world at large: "I'm telling you ... Joxer ... th' whole worl's ... in a terr ... ible state o' ... chassis!"

Werner Huber