The Ghastly Impermanence: Paper Radio

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I seem to have provoked a couple of odd responses with my article on Elissa Guralnick’s Sight Unseen–perhaps, I suppose, because I do not seem to show it the correct reverence. Since I will never show that reverence for anything, it is best if I treat my primary objection further.

Professor Guralnick’s analysis is text-based. That much seems incontrovertible. Where I diverge from other critics is that I do not think a text-based analysis of radio drama is sufficient. It is a starting point and perhaps, it is the best that can be done in some circumstances. Certainly the problem is analogous in stage drama. Theater history must in some sense rely heavily upon the history of written drama, especially where there are no written records of actual production. Too, any sensible dramaturge or scholar relies upon a sensitivity to scripted drama in order to preserve and expand one’s idea of a possible theater. By assiduously and thoughtfully reading scripts one can envision a broad stroke image of the whole of theater.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. One of the most influential books on theater in the 20th Century, Eric Bentley’s The Playwright as Thinker, relies exclusively upon analysis of written drama to recover an intellectual history of the theater at a time when theater was considered virtually the lowest of the arts in America. From Aristotle all the way down to the present, many books have relied on a similar approach and I believe there is no serious discussion on theater history that does not adopt this approach at least partially.

However, one can go too far. One can make the extraordinary leap of logic that reading plays is sufficient in itself to bestow a complete knowledge of theater upon a reader. This is absurd. Yet the notion persists. Professor Guralnick’s approach may not intend to go so far, yet its method leads this way.

Professor Guralnick states that her selection process was the same as that of the BBC in choosing the Giles Cooper Award winners. In particular:

Selection was made on the strength of the script rather than of the production, since it was felt that the awards were primarily for writing and that production could unduly enhance or detract from the merits of the original script.

This sounds superficially reasonable. For awards that are given to writers, it might be. But it is impossible for me not to find more than a little smug pretense in such a statement. That a production might “unduly enhance” the merits of a script is not only the dream of writers everywhere but also the desire of every single audience member in history. Even Dr. Samuel Johnson’s audience which comes “to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation” does nevertheless care about gesture and modulation, and these things are not matters of script. Script is not broadcast, and drama is not theater. Scripts are in general made to be produced as plays rather than read as scripts. An approach that concentrates on script rewards closet drama at the expensive of lively performance.

Borrowing a phrase from A.D. Coleman, as a critic I write for an educated and literate but otherwise general audience in a journal of opinion on diverse subjects. Also like Mr. Coleman, I believe the primary function of my criticism is to compel an audience to experience a work and engage it no less thoughtfully than it engaged me. Where my concerns are with radio drama, I cannot possibly write to an entire generation or two who have virtually no experience of listening to drama on the radio and tell them that reading scripts is good enough to get a sense of what it’s all about before they go back to ignoring it just as they did before. In no way would I feel that I am serving my critical duty, which is to proselytize for the experience of listening, not of merely reading.

I think Professor Guralnick leans too much upon the sanctity of the script to compel her readers to the experience of listening to any of the discussed dramas on the radio. It is too easy to read her book as a book on The Drama, subdivision Radio. Her choice of scripts, to my eye, confirms this: Robert Ferguson aside, these are known writers for the stage, and Mr. Ferguson warrants no discussion in a chapter of his own but only with his primer inter pares Samuel Beckett. One might easily wonder, as I did, why not concentrate on writers who wrote exclusively in radio yet with the same skill, and come to the conclusion that no one would give Wally K. Daly a second glance on the shelf, but would stop at the name of Tom Stoppard. Sight Unseen practically pleads on every page, “Look, radio can be serious, too and just as artsy as the stage, even if it’s a mass medium!” But why? To whom is the plea addressed? Academics will likely not believe anything can reach the lofty heights of their precious “pop culture” cinema or haute couture capital-A Art of the Theater, and regular listeners of radio will likely not give a damn what anyone thinks about their listening habits.

It is not my desire to question Professor Guralnick’s motives or her scholarship. I think both are probably the best they can be. I am definitely aware that it is a tough sale to a publisher, even a university publisher, to write a book on radio drama. One would have to love the medium even to begin such a venture. But I think the world needs more than what she offers. There has been great emphasis in radio drama scholarship placed upon either the script or post-structuralist ideas of radio’s cultural context. Both are important; both are insufficient. Some of Alan Beck’s work or Tim Crook’s aside, actual practice of radio production and aesthetic considerations of the same have been almost completely ignored. Where in theater one can read a fairly comprehensive history of stage machinery or lighting or acting from the Renaissance to today, radio drama has virtually nothing of the sort. And it’s a shame. Radios are not made of paper, nor is radio drama.

Script is important. Considering the paucity of listenable material that rises above simple genre concerns, reading scripts remains essential. It may even be many people’s primary gateway to wide open fields of radio drama. How much more important, however, to run in those fields and see everything all the way to the horizon. In the fields, though, a critic’s map may be the only guidance available. The critic’s goal then must be, as always, to write passionately but also comprehensively and imbue a reader with and overpowering sense that radio is worthwhile, alive, powerful–and can only truly be experienced with the ears.

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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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