The Ghastly Impermanence: A Writer’s Theater

Photo credit: gorgeoux.Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.

Photo credit: gorgeoux.
Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.


Since I invoked George Jean Nathan in my last piece, I want to pick up one of his points from his essay, “A Play to Interest You.”

Where the destructive critic does not fail is in the rearousing of an interest in the theatre in the great force of people who–sickened by the current standards of the theatre and, further still, by the dunderheaded pamphleteers who believe they are helping that theatre by the display of a large altruism and great forgiving spirit–have temporarily deserted the acted for the printed drama. Where he does not fail is in persuading these people, in large numbers, to revisit the theatre, not, assuredly, in the dim hope of seeing good plays, but to observe for themselves that the plays are actually still as bad as the destructive critic said they were–something of which the charitable folk might possibly, if only for a moment, have been skeptical.

While I am not what one might call a destructive critic (though without a doubt many have mumbled otherwise in private), I believe completely in this particular goal of criticism. It is a critical duty to remind audiences that standards are poor and to remind the theatrical cabal of one’s town that they truly do not deserve altruism and charity for performing a steady stream of rubbish. I am not talking about outright failures, where a group tries something new or radical or controversial or hopeful or some combination thereof and in so doing plummet to earth like Icarus on melted wings. Those groups deserve the highest praise for their failure and more than that for their will to fail. Honest failures are worthy, and one of the building blocks of progress. I’m talking about the middling, about the groups who study surveys, who calculate art based on popularity, who hem and haw, who hedge their bets, who safely land their work in the middle of the island in the middle of the ocean of mediocrity. They do not deserve praise. They deserve, rather, to be smacked with something blunt and preferably heavy.

In the realm of the stage, there are plenty of these people who deserve a beatdown on both aesthetic and moral grounds. But that is not the point I wish to pick up. What I wish to pick up is Nathan’s rather subtle implication in this none-too-subtle passage: namely, that intelligent people who like drama will read drama first, rather than go to see it neutered on a stage. To hear many people in the theater elite talk, these intelligent people do not exist and even if they did they are not worth consideration. This is meant to be an excuse for constantly demeaning themselves and their audiences with insulting, fradulent crap.

Facts show otherwise. I myself can tell you the exact two instances that led me to stop writing about theater and stop attending for over ten years. I know a dozen others who have shared with me their similar experiences, and I’m sure they know still others. I didn’t stop being interested in theater; I just stopped going. I stayed home and read instead. This was Nathan’s point. Part of the reason that he could say with cavalier abandon that he did not care if every theater in the country closed its doors is that he understood, as I do, that people will continue to read, playwrights will continue to write, and anyway a closure of theaters whose output is 98% pure dreck offers a very good reason to catch up on all the rest in the world of drama that is not instantly dismissible rubbish.

For me, as for millions of other people over the past ninety years, the truth remains that books filled with plays are still on my library shelves and that I can turn on the radio or download a podcast to satisfy my need for good drama. BBC alone produces about 190 plays for the Afternoon Drama slot on Radio 4, not counting the “archive entertainment” on Radio 4 Extra or the heavier, grittier work on Radio 3, bringing the total to somewhere around 230 plays a year on average. Clearly, there is a demand.

The shabby genteel elitist George Bernard Shaw once quipped that radio drama was “theater for the blind.” What Shaw didn’t say was that the theater itself was also theater for the blind–and the deaf and the tasteless, as one could prove easily from any given week of theater listings or indeed Shaw’s own dramatic reviews. He ignored blithely that there were on average 5,000,000 blind listeners every week for BBC’s Saturday Night Theatre, or The Sunday Play, and that his own Candida or Androcles and the Lion drew around 7,000,000–far more than would ever see his work on all the stages in Britain.

He also ignored that among those allegedly blind were the next generation of playwrights. Samuel Beckett. Harold Pinter. Brendan Behan. Tom Stoppard. Joe Orton. Caryl Churchill. John Arden. Howard Barker. All of them wrote for radio. Not only did their individual styles develop because of their experience of radio drama as listeners, but also as writers. Radio drama allowed them to do things they could not do on stage–legally.

All the way until 1968 the British theater labored under the Theatres Act, which meant that plays written for the stage were subject to the capricious censorship of the Lord Chamberlain whose job it was to uphold “Good Manners, Decorum and the Public Peace” according to the law. In post-war Britain this meant that the Lord Chamberlain fought against anything that remotely smacked of modernism. About Pinter’s play, Landscape, the office wrote:

This is a long one-act play without any plot or development… Since there is very little shape the entire thing just stops–rather like a contemporary serial music composition. And of course, there have to be the ornamental indecencies.

The comparison to serial music is telling. It is an unsubtle gibe, coded postwar language used to suggest that Pinter’s work was “Germanic”–and therefore all that was unholy and wrong with the world. Other modernist writers were castigated for similar things. Styles were changing. So was the language itself.

Ten years earlier, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was reviled as “drawing liberally on the vocabulary of the intestines and lacing his tirades with the steamier epithets of the tripe butcher.” Such vocabulary represented the poor and the working classes and to stoop to their level when the theater offered the exemplary upper-class, good British decency of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan indicated that merry old Albion had become a barbaric new Nineveh.

This British penchant for treating unpleasant reality as an outrage had always been the notochord of British censorship laws, and the hard tones of kitchen sink realism plus the Continental color of absurdism brought back this outrage in mass quantities. This was, after all, the decade that Penguin Books had been prosecuted for releasing Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a mass-market paperback. Censorship in literature and on the stage was having its last revival.

Harold Pinter.

Harold Pinter.

Unlike the stage, however, radio drama was not subject to the Theatres Act. Consequently, under the directorship of Martin Esslin it became a safe haven for the modern British and Continental drama. Writers took to the new medium as a matter of preserving their voice, their freedom and their integrity. Pinter’s Landscape, in fact, debuted on the Third Programme (Radio 3) after being rejected by the censor with those choice words above. He was offered a chance at staging it but only if he made at least seven cuts. Pinter said no. So the Third Programme said yes.

The historical condition of radio drama in the 1950s and 1960s meant that the plays one heard on the radio were much more in tune with the broader concerns of the British playwright than the stage could ever be under the censorship that hogtied dramatists of the era. Furthermore, the phenomenological condition of radio made it perfect to share these concerns. Radio audiences listened to these dramas either by themselves or with their families. There were no intermediaries. This experience of broadcast created a type of collusion with the listener, an intimacy wherein utterances that would never be permitted on a stage became not only acceptable to people in the privacy of their own homes but also desirable: a way of sharing secrets, direct thoughts, words and feelings about the state of life in postwar Britain–without the stress of that essentially British tool, public shame, to destroy one’s honest communication. With the development of the TR-1 transistor radio in 1954, broadcast became even more portable, making the experience even more private.

For millions around the world, this became their gateway to literature that was not approved for them by parents and teachers, but their own personal discoveries. For writers especially, it opened up the world considerably. In radio drama the division between literature to be read and literature to be produced and high and lofty theatre™ does not exist–or, if one believes it does, shares nothing like the perceived gap in praxis between a “script” and a “play” of the stage. For a generation of playwrights who admitted and continued a deep love of radio, I suspect it was a non-issue. In that context, the academic arguments about the death of the theater in the 50s and 60s could hardly have seemed more absurd. There was plenty of theater being written. There was plenty being performed. It just wasn’t on the stage.

In his piece “Considering the Armchair Critic“, Mr. George Hunka elegantly notes “The written drama also permits the reader to expose himself to the dramatist’s vision without the intermediary levels of direction, design, or performance.” This is also the strength of audio drama. While there is certainly an intermediary level of direction and performance, the dramatist’s vision still reaches every listener on her own level. She creates the drama in her head to her own satisfaction, and whatever she sees, she sees alone.

For writers who wanted to reach people directly without interference, this medium was nearly ideal. One salient quality of Harold Pinter’s “absurdism” was its emphasis upon internal states. The means of broadcast obliterated the detachment enforced by a stage, proscenium or otherwise allowing a listener direct and instantaneous entry into a character’s thoughts. It allowed, and in many plays, like those of Giles Cooper, encouraged the co-existence of internal and external worlds between which the listener moved at will. Broadcast also obliterated distance. Where there was “action” on a stage, one’s attention focused upon the stage as an external space. Not so with radio. In radio, the drama wasn’t there but here. You did not observe it from the outside; you lived inside it at all times. Writers like Pinter, Cooper, Günter Eich, Peter Handke, and others who explored the internal world of the psyche thrived in this medium quite naturally.

Audiences found them there. People who could not be bothered with staged theater and its numerous failings of relevance and immediacy nevertheless had an intellectual and emotional need for the drama and they found it on the radio. While smug individuals like Bernard Shaw doted on the mystical aura of elitism and prestige associated with equally smug, passive audiences sitting in plush theater seats, the stage could not and did not satisfy the needs of the drama-loving public. Radio did, and in many places, still does, where television has not obscured it completely. Writers still write for radio not because they “can’t hack it in the theater”–I’m pretty sure Nobel prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek could hack it anywhere she chooses–but because the medium affords them two of those things theater elites carp about incessantly: freedom and an audience.

It has always been a function of radio to bring education, literature and theater to the greater public. The value is built into the German, Canadian and British broadcast systems. Even the tacky populism of American radio has within it the primary values of “public interest, convenience and necessity” all the way back to the Communications Act of 1934, and these are understood to include instructional, educational and cultural purposes. Billions of people around the world have learned about literature and theater via the radio. Thousands of writers have honed their craft there, and even more have taken their inspiration from it. That I still hear Americans struggling with the question of “literature to be read” or “theater” as if such things even mattered shows, I think, how far out of touch with literature in general–and with theater–we are.

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