The Ghastly Impermanence: Canon Envy

Photo: John D.L.

As John Drakakis noted in his landmark 1981 book, British Radio Drama, there is no comprehensive history of radio drama. There is also precious little writing about radio aesthetics. The consequence of this is that there is no canon in the sense one might speak of a canon in American literature, for instance, or classical music pre-1900. While many people are certainly satisfied with the absence of a canon for radio drama, the lack of one has dismal consequences.

One consequence is that there is no sense of continuum in the art, even an artificial one; one cannot expand a non-existent canon–or attack it for political or social motives. A subtler yet probably more important consequence is that the lack of a canon means there is simultaneously nothing to teach and too much to learn. For the lay listener whose interest in radio drama is casual and not academic, this causes frustration.

Having a canon is valuable for reasons that are not merely pedagogical. My primary interest in writing about radio is to share and, I hope, spread my love of the medium in all its beauty. Yet what a new listener often desires is a sort of Rough Guide to Radio Drama. Though it is no substitute for an immense and continually growing scholarly studio of theory, aesthetics, ethics, sociology and craftsmanship of the art, such a guide is a good start for the layman. Certainly there should be one.

I do not know that I am the one to write such a guide. Nevertheless, I believe new listeners need some sort of guidance through this vast, tortuous and chaotic realm. Many Rough Guides are arranged by region–the Rough Guide to World Music, for instance. A similar arrangement for radio drama would fail in various ways. While there are things to be said for segregating British from American from German from Swedish from Japanese from Indian radio drama, it is bound also to have bad consequences. The last thing the world needs is more cultural isolation.

I am far more interested in similarities between peoples and sharing knowledge across boundaries than I am in simply reaffirming people’s prejudices and creating further divisions. Such prejudices and divisions will form on their own just fine without my help. I prefer a comparative approach. American radio overlaps thematically with British radio as surely as American literature overlaps with British literature and they overlap with the rest of the world’s. A sensible approach must emphasize how truly rich and storied is the history of the art.

The last thing one should encourage is more cultural narrowness in the minds of listeners. This is one reason I rather shy away from too much discussion of generic and serial radio drama. Partly it is because I find them dull but also it is because they lend themselves much more easily to the clichés people already have about radio drama: that radio is a poor stepfather to television; that the important thing above all is to evoke familiarity and nostalgia; that “shows” and “stars” are more important than stories and scripts; that radio must above all else be commercial and repetitious as a matter of course. To reaffirm such clichés is to do injustice not only to what can be done exclusively in radio but also to ignore what already has been.

Over time, writing this column I hope to create something of a guide–at least a better one than currently exists. Foremost, however, is that I help nurture a real affection for what has been be done, is being done, can be done, and will be done. Discussion is difficult, though, when nothing can be assumed. Other fields of study do not have this problem. One can and should assume that an art historian has seen at least a print of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, for instance, or that a student of American literature has read at least one story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This is the real purpose of the canon: to create a solid basis for discussion and exploration.

Radiophonic drama in all its forms is a beautiful thing that deserves a canon of its own.

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Categories 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

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