The Chinese phrase 意到笔不到 (yi tao bi bu tao) is a challenge in English. In Art and Illusion, E.H. Gombrich translates it as “Ideas present, brush may be spared performance.” Another translation is “the idea is present even where the brush has not passed.” Presumably you get the idea. While its usual meaning suggests the practice of simplifying one’s art from many lines to single ones, I should like to take it another direction. Something like, “Imagination sufficient, the script may be spared visualization.”
This is an inelegant phrase. Yet the idea is the heart of good audio drama, just as 意到笔不到 is at the heart of good painting. Detractors like Bernard Shaw who view audio drama as “theater for the blind” completely miss the point. They might just as easily call literature “television for the deaf” or indeed call music itself “architecture for the blind.” It is the much-ballyhooed “blindness” of audio drama that is its essential strength. When that strength respected as such, it allows a dramatist to do what she can do in no other form. When that strength is not respected, it may send a dramatist into a cul-de-sac from which he will never escape.
Howard Barker’s latest radio play, In the Depths of Dead Love, is fittingly set in China. On its surface it may sound like just another one of his plays being read. Having just recently attended a reading of Mr. Barker’s The Fence in Its Thousandth Year myself, I know it is not. This is a master dramatist who knows and understands how radio works and uses it for an array of interesting effects only attainable in audio. Barker has said elsewhere (in an interview with Nick Hobbes) that the theater is a dark place and we should keep the light out of it. And what could be darker than the “blindness” of radio?
In the Depths of Dead Love explores a distinctly cultivated darkness. The basic dramatic situation is simple. A woman wishes to jump into a bottomless well and die in oblivion. She finds that ultimately she lacks the will and implores the keeper of the well, an exiled poet, to push her in. More peculiarly, her husband also comes along to ask the keeper the same thing. The keeper then falls in love with the woman, who loves no one, at which point her husband suggests to the keeper that the ultimate act of poetry would be to jump into the well and drag her down with him.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of concept. Mr. Barker’s plays always present language that challenges the tongue and the ear. He delights in the most passionate and extreme emotions that threaten to burst through the poetic text at any turn for no reason whatsoever. His plotting is the very antithesis of logical and he categorically refuses to impose “meaning” on the listener.
Those traits are on full display here. But the audio form makes them more powerful here, not less. In audio drama the division between internal monologue and interpersonal dialogue often dissolves as a matter of course. Location is compressed or protracted or extrapolated or all three simultaneously. The “point of listening” shifts freely from ambience to detail to speech in any combination. Mr. Barker exploits these qualities with great subtlety. His language itself being already effusive, Mr. Barker combines this blind “defect” of the medium with his heightened speech to add yet another level of intricacy to an already intricate production.
At multiple times, a monologue begins, all the while realistic sounds underneath a soliloquy indicate that time continues on. But how? And what kind of time? Are all these thoughts compressed into the simple actions of pouring tea, or shouting “Who’s there?” or “I have a knife”? Mr. Barker would probably answer “Yes, obviously.” But even so, it is be that easy. The sense of time throughout the piece is anything but linear and the unreality of space and place is less linear still.
As an example: In one of the most extraordinary passages in the piece, Mr. Chin begins in monologue which then breaks off, interrupted by a question from Lady Hasi, who then goes into a monologue of her own when then breaks off when she turns to Mr. Chin. So far so good. But as Mr. Chin continues to speak he answers a question that he could not possibly have heard–a question from Lady Hasi’s own monologue–without even the slightest suggestion that something quite strange is happening.
This is the realm of pure imagination, the place where radio excels. At any point one can be within a character’s mind and simultaneously in a shared reality with other characters. Time may grind to a halt in that external reality yet still continue in a character’s mind–or vice versa.
For all the listener knows, the entire piece may take place completely inside Lady Hasi’s mind–or inside Mr. Chin’s. The imagined places and imagined visions are irreducible–and so they should be. They are more powerful for that. The concrete imagery of a stage or a screen presentation, that presence of the actor in which the real power of theater lies, would do the piece here an unjust violence. The only eye necessary to view Mr. Barker’s play is the third eye.
In sharp contrast to Mr. Barker’s masterful play is Alan Bennett’s latest piece for radio. Like Mr. Barker, Mr. Bennett is known much better for his stage plays, but he has written many times for radio and is familiar with its peculiarities.
Listening to Denmark Hill, however, one might reasonably wonder if he had ever heard a radio play before. The piece is a witty take on Hamlet with an even wittier take on the idea of a play within the play of Hamlet. Like all of Mr. Bennett’s work, its dialogue shows a masterful ear for the absurdities within human communication. And yet, for a play making its premier in 2014, it evokes the very worst elements of radio drama circa 1965, if not earlier.
Written originally as a screenplay circa 1982, Mr. Bennett adapted the piece himself for radio after an enterprising producer discovered the unproduced script among his papers. (Why it sat in a drawer for thirty years Mr. Bennett himself does not recall.) Yet for some bizarre reason, this radio adaptation includes a narrator (Mr. Bennett himself) who reads the stage directions. As much as I love Mr. Bennett and his unique voice, the awkward imposition of visual details–and worse, via a narrator who has no part in the drama–makes for painful listening. I found myself wanting to scream “Get on with it!” every time the narrator decided that it was crucial I needed to know all the details of what location I was supposed to be in. It’s radio, sir. I don’t need to know what someone looks like. I don’t need to know what color the house is, or the dishes. And if I do, please don’t have a narrator tell me. Put it into dialogue. My imagination will fill in the gaps. Give me the things I cannot imagine, and the rest will take care of itself. Give me the idea. 意到笔不到 applies to sound, too, not just to brushstrokes.
That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy much of the play, since I did. But the use of this kind of narration these days in audio drama can only be dull, or smack of burlesque. It’s exactly the sort of thing Timothy West parodied in the infamous This Gun That I Have in My Right Hand is Loaded:
HAWKINS: What ho then mate. What are you having?
CLIVE: A whisky, please.
HAWKINS: Any particular brand?
CLIVE: I’ll have the one nearest the clock.
HAWKINS: Half a minute. There’s a bloke over there can’t take his eyes off you, Clive. Over in the corner, see him? Wearing a dark blue, single-breasted dinner jacket and tinted spectacles. A foreigner, or my name’s not…George Hawkins.
CLIVE: Yes, by George, you’re right, George. Excuse me.
Even understanding that the script was originally a screenplay, I expect more from Mr. Bennett than this. He should, too. His idea is present (mostly), but he has not spared the brush performance. This piece would benefit from being less detailed, not more.