The Ghastly Impermanence: Sight Unseen

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In 1996, leading radio drama scholar Alan Beck lamented that in seventy-five years of broadcast there were only eighteen books published about radio drama. More pointedly, Professor Beck noted that the whole subject area was impressively and definitively mapped out by three publications:

  1. John Drakakis (ed.), British Radio Drama (Cambridge 1981), a collection covering the main dramatists;
  2. Peter Lewis (ed.), Radio Drama (Longman 1981), with more practical and theoretical approaches; and
  3. Andrew Crisell, Understanding Radio (Methuen 1986), the greatest exploration of theory.

As he was writing those words, a new book was being published that would become the so-far definitive book on the subject written by an American: Elissa Guralnick’s Sight Unseen: Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard and Other Contemporary Dramatists on Radio.

Prof. Guralnick’s book came at the beginning of a resurgent wave of interest in radio drama that also includes Tim Crook’s brilliantly frustrating Radio Drama: Theory and Practice, Martin Shingler and Cindy Wieringa’s On Air, and Radio Rethink, edited by Daina Augaitis. Not coincidentally, I suspect, this wave occurs concomitantly with the rise of the graphical World Wide Web.

I have a couple problems with Prof. Guralnick’s approach. Her book is based upon a literary drama canon, easily divined from the subtitle, “Contemporary Dramatists on Radio.” The essential conceit in this approach is really to discuss playwrights who are best known for their stage work, rather than playwrights who write specifically for radio. I cannot argue against her choice of material. These are brilliant playwrights. These are brilliant plays. What I will argue is that the approach probably confirms more biases than it dispels.

Giving Prof. Guralnick the benefit of fair doubt, I imagine her goal in writing the book is to expand the audience for radio drama by proving its link to stage drama. From the book’s preface this would seem to be the case.

In my own scale of values, authenticity arises when a literary work sustains and rewards explication. So it is, in what follows, that I engage in close reading of radio plays that are widely admired among the cognoscenti, but that yet are little known (unless in their stage versions) among the general community of readers and scholars.

What Prof. Guralnick means by “authenticity” is specifically authenticity as literature–dramatic literature. Handwritten play as fodder for explication de texte. That she chooses playwrights who have already established stage careers–the solitary exception might be Robert Ferguson–further cements the claim. I think the aim is noble enough. What I object to is not, as Prof. Guralnick predicts, “that radio plays must be heard to be known”–which seems to me fairly obvious–but rather that in her choice of material, she continues the cliché that radio is simply a poor laboratory for the almighty stage where the real money is. While she states in the book that answering the question of whether or not plays that are especially created for the medium can be “intrinsically superb, the equal in merit of plays for the theater,” I think this question is absurd and absurdly answered. One does not prove the merits of audio by comparing audio art to visual stagecraft, anymore than one argues whether or not music is comparable to architecture.

Prof. Guralnick’s approach in Sight Unseen leans heavily on analyzing dialogue and play structure. But nothing suggests that plays are primarily about dialogue–especially on radio. Entirely non-dialogue-based plays exist in most cultures around the world; theater of images is far from a new idea on stage, and theater of sonic apprehension is far from new on radio. Furthermore, as Alan Beck argues elsewhere, such a belief in “playspeak” as the primary mode of communicating ideas in radio proscribes much of the richness of audio drama that can only exist in sound and not on the page.

Prof. Guralnick runs smack up against this wall herself when discussing Robert Ferguson’s Transfigured Night in conjunction with John Cage’s Roaratorio in which she asks which of the experiments comes closest to music. The question cannot be answered, but more importantly, needs no answer. That her discussion of Cage relies upon Cage’s use of verbal mesostichs rather than in terms of Varèse’s “sound masses” tells all one needs to know about her exclusive reliance upon words. No wonder her book does not include Peter Handke or Heiner Müller, though either of those playwrights also have an established reputation on the stage and certainly have also published their work, which does exist in English. An entire tradition of German radio drama all the way back to Walter Ruttmann’s Weekend would suggest that radio can dispense with words and “literature” at will, and is often much more interesting when it does.

After almost two hundred pages of play analyses, Prof. Guralnick then reveals in her afterword the real case to be made for a text-based analysis of radio drama: that we live in a visual culture and radio has no pictures, therefore the entire field is in danger of being abandoned by writers. Without irony, she writes:

Radio plays will remain at special risk, so long as those few that are widely esteemed are read as books, or staged as theater, but rarely ever heard in their proper form as sound. Should their alienation from their source become complete, radio will cease to be attractive to playwrights….

The irony extends even further. Two of the plays Prof. Guralnick analyzes in her book, Cries from Casement as his Bones are Brought to Dublin and Transfigured Night do not even exist in audio versions. There is, to my knowledge, no known audio recording of either play anywhere in either the UK or the USA or Canada. So what argument can one make that these are outstanding radio plays? Because they are well-written? Furthermore, in arguing for their excellence as radio drama, Prof. Guralnick quotes text from Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution and Arthur Kopit’s Wings that are not even in the broadcast versions of the pieces, with the note “Wherever the printed text of the play is more expansive than the broadcast, I have treated the text as authoritative.” I leave it to the reader to confront the dichotomy.

I am not suggesting that Prof. Guralnick’s book is dreadful. It is not. Her analyses of the plays at hand is generally brilliant (Roaratorio being an exception). Her prose is crisp and clean, quite unacademic and quite fluid. It is perhaps the finest book ever written analyzing the literary quality of radio scripts. Nothing else is close for breadth and depth. Her knowledge of contemporary drama on stage and on air is expansive and catholic. For what it is, it is superior.

Yet, as I write this, it occurs to me what is far more necessary than a text-based analysis of published radio scripts by leading contemporary playwrights is a real use of the Internet: a complete history of audio drama that features not only scripts but also audio clips and pictures, a comparative approach that treats non-text-based radio drama as equally important with text-based radio drama and confronts the various issues of broadcast, narrowcast and singlecast contexts for audio drama and broadcast radio drama. Estonian radio in 1995 was far enough advanced in this line of thinking about individual plays (see Tim Crook’s Radio Drama for a description). It is past time to apply this to the field as a whole. Perhaps such a website should be called Sound Unseen.


Filed under 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