The Ghastly Impermanence: Poets and the Poetry of Radio Drama

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The blind medium of radio in its unique power upon the ear of stimulating the imagination makes for a kind of drama which can embrace subjects film and theatre may never approach. Its subtle and mercurial manipulation of sounds and words, allied to its quality of immediacy and intimacy with the listener, give it possibilities of development that await only the right dramatist. We think now of the poetic plays of Mr Louis MacNeice, of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and of Mr Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall as tentative but real steps towards the discovery of radio drama’s proper form. Can the playgoer fail to find this medium of help? — J.L. Styan, The Elements of Drama

Radio and poetry are a natural coupling. Both are primarily arts of the ear. Both are essentially ambiguous and draw their strength from ambiguity. Both, also, are relics of a world in which sound was the dominant means of distributing messages to a broad public.

Even before Reginald Fassenden’s landmark audio broadcast of 1906 in which he broadcast a partial reading of the Book of Luke, radio operators of the DeForest company were broadcasting poetry in Morse code to people expecting the results of yacht races from Marconi company broadcasters. Hungarian “telephone newspapers” were transmitting poetry to guests at Budapest’s hotels. Not merely a dilettante activity for European bourgeois, poetry existed throughout the world in a state of high esteem, something that cut across social class and even across national boundaries at a time when European and American nationalism were at their peak.

That nationalism was one of the fundamental causes of World War I. But even in World War I the belief in poetry as a healing force persisted. American army hospitals used poetry broadcasts to entertain their patients.

Before a great while the boys of U. S. Army in France who are injured while doing their “bit,” will be persuaded to forget their aches and pains along with all the hardships of war, by strains of music, carried to them by wireless. It is planned that they will hear novels and poetry and news stories, the soldier boy who is too ill even for a little entertainment not being disturbed, for the entertainment will be distributed in individual doses by wireless telephone and phonograph. — The Wireless Age, April 1918

It makes perfect sense that a culture whose most powerful public mass medium was audio should value the spoken word highly. Poets themselves were well aware of this quality of radio. As the medium spread widely, more and more poets began to use it to broadcast their published works with innumerable readings. It would take awhile, however, before poets began to write new material especially for the medium itself.

Among the first, if not the first, to do this was Archibald MacLeish with his play The Fall of the City. MacLeish found radio naturally attractive. “Somehow or other,” said MacLeish, “I had the sense that radio offered an opportunity for dramatic poetry that should be seized.”

Seize it he did. With a cast of Orson Welles, Burgess Meredith and Adelaide Klein, together with extras from the Seventh Regiment Armory (!) and music by Bernard Herrmann, MacLeish’s Fall of the City became one of the most brilliant pieces ever broadcast on the CBS Network. In a time when coast-to-coast broadcasts were virtually unheard of, The Fall of the City was broadcast coast-to-coast twice, once from New York in 1937 and again in 1939 from the Hollywood Bowl. The response was phenomenal. Over one million people listened. Critics wrote about the play as a parable of Hitler’s invasion of Austria–a couple days after the first broadcast of the play–and praised MacLeish’s “prophetic” gifts. Time magazine wrote in its review, “Artistically radio is ready to come of age, for in the hands of a master a $10 receiving set can become a living theatre, its loudspeaker a national proscenium.” Audiences wrote letters to CBS like the following:

On this day I played my game and got tired, came home and filled the tub, turned on the radio, got into the tub, and the goddamn thing began spouting poetry at me! And if I could have got it, I’d have choked it, but I couldn’t! And you want to know something? It’s great!

The strength of MacLeish’s play lies not only in his gift for evocative language but also in the nature of radio itself. Since radio tends toward abstraction when evoking a location, the ambiguity of place allows the listener to imagine whatever locale one thinks appropriate. MacLeish’s poetic style itself relies upon ambiguity and multiple layers of meaning so the union of medium and text is exactly appropriate.

This poetic ambiguity attracted other poets to the medium as well. Bertolt Brecht’s Trial of Lucullus became a kind of sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. The Swedish radio station for whom he wrote it declined its broadcast on grounds they wished to remain politically neutral. An obvious parable like MacLeish’s about the brutality of conquering generals–and suggestive of Hitler’s invasion of Poland as MacLeish’s play suggested the Austrian Anschluss–it was broadcast first in Switzerland in May of 1940 and published in the United States by New Directions in 1943 as one in a series of Poets of the Year that also included Dylan Thomas and e.e. cummings. The Trial of Lucullus became even more of a hot potato when it was adapted to a musical opera by Brecht and Dessau after the war and was refused performance on grounds of its “formalism.”

In truth, it is far from formalist. It is quite direct, oddly so for a play by Brecht. Again, the radio medium helps strengthen the poetic conceit of the play with its abstract nature. Where the opera is perhaps too literal in its metaphor of Rome=Germany, the spartan quality of the radio script relies on ambiguity that would be less likely to shock yet still convey the meaning of the piece quite readily.

In Great Britain, the poet Louis MacNeice had made several “radio features” before finding his voice lay more truthfully in a poetic approach to drama. While this poetic approach was certainly present even in the features–leading some of the features to be mistaken for “dramas” to this day–it finally manifested fully in MacNeice’s first “fantasy” play. The Dark Tower, broadcast in January of 1946, became legendary. BBC Third Programme producer George MacBeth, himself a fine poet and editor of many books of poetry, referred to it as “the best piece of writing ever done for radio” and many others share that opinion. Its music by composer Benjamin Britten certainly contributes to that. After writing numerous features for the BBC from 1941-1945, MacNeice concluded finally that it was time to use the radio medium for a different purpose than mere documentary.

My own impression is that pure “realism” is in our time almost played out, though most works of fiction will remain realistic on the surface. The single track mind and the single-plane novel or play are almost bound to falsify the world in which we live…. Some element of parable therefore, far from making a work thinner and more abstract, ought to make it more concrete. Man does after all live by symbols.

The Dark Tower is, as MacNeice terms it, a parable play. Unlike the poetic dramas of MacLeish or Brecht, it is not in verse. Yet no one will doubt its poetry. Taking off from Robert Browning’s ballad “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” MacNeice turns the entire genre of the knight’s quest from Browning’s essay in psychology into a shadowy, anti-psychological parable of the very human dilemmas of the new nuclear age.

As television came and absorbed radio audiences after the war, radio itself needed to be rethought. Not only its content but its entire raison d’etre required analysis. Different producers had different ways of dealing with this.

By and large networks in the United States simply ran away from the prospect, concentrating their monies upon the newest technology. In Canada, radio drama would hold its own and reach its apex in this period before the CBC finally decided to cast its lot with television. The BBC in Britain went the other way, completely restructuring the entire experience of radio with a larger cultural goal in mind of which television was only a remote part. In postwar Germany, however, something quite extraordinary happened: with a country lying largely in rubble and poverty widespread, radio actually grew in importance. Television was too expensive and theaters were closed or destroyed. Radio drama and radio broadcast redefined itself there in an extremely sophisticated way and the modern Hörspiel began its ascendancy.

In all these cases, the power of radio to evoke imaginative inner worlds remained in the background. The background would soon enough become foreground in Britain and Germany; the United States and Canada would take a bit longer. The 1950s opened the way for a new wave of playwrights and a new idea of theater for them to explore. Three poets especially would lead the way in Europe: Samuel Beckett, Dylan Thomas and Günter Eich.

Recordings:

The Fall of the City from the Internet Archive

The Trial of Lucullus, via UbuWeb

The Dark Tower, courtesy of Moyra Bligh

Filed under Drama, Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net