The Ghastly Impermanence: Guided By Voices — A New Listener’s Guide to Audio Drama, Part 2

Photo by James Cridland.
Photo by James Cridland.

Last entry I dealt with the possibilities of sound. The three pieces I chose were deliberately extreme. By delineating the extremes, the territory in the middle becomes far more interesting–and larger. Furthermore, part of the purpose of this audio drama guide is to shake up listeners’ prejudices about what audio drama can and cannot do. I hope I have begun that shake up. I intend to shake even harder.

Many people doggedly believe that words are necessary to carry “meaning.” Words, after all, are the foundation of academia and to suggest that they are unimportant is to threaten the academic. And if academics don’t write about audio drama, who will? This is why people like Professor Guralnick in her otherwise well-intentioned and lucid book on audio drama privileges the published script over the audio broadcast–a clear absurdity, yet shockingly common among academics. And not just academics: historians and linguists have influenced generations of citizens to believe that oral cultures are somehow less trustworthy and less civilized than cultures who keep written records. One need not look too far for examples.

Yet oral communication also relies upon a quality of words known as the “metaverbal”: not the words themselves, but how the words are spoken. According to various studies, such metaverbal communication can carry up to five times as much “meaning” as the “words themselves.” This is a power within audio drama that receives little discussion, yet I think it is one of its most important qualities, for there is no such thing as “words themselves” when dealing with audio drama: there is only speech, and this speech relies upon metaverbal qualities to convey meaning.

Last week was about sound, particularly sound effects. The examples there were extreme. In the further spirit of extremity, I turn this week not to sound but to speech. This chapter is about speech, and how far it can go. I’ve already shown, with Andrew Sachs’ The Revenge how speech is not necessary to make a coherent and forceful audio drama. If is not necessary, then what is it for? You have heard what happens when one releases sound from speech. Now let us see what happens when speech is released from sound.


The Examination – Harold Pinter

I wrote a short story a long time ago called The Examination, and my ideas of violence carried on from there. That short story dealt very explicitly the with two people in one room having a battle of an unspecified nature, in which the question was one of who was dominant at what point and how they were going to be dominant and what tools they would use to achieve dominance and how they would try to undermine the other person’s dominance. — Harold Pinter, in Lawrence M. Bensky’s “Harold Pinter: An Interview,” Paris Review, X, 39 (1966)

Harold Pinter originally wrote The Examination as a short story. Why, then, discuss it in a piece about audio drama? The answers are many. Pinter himself has performed the piece as a radio monologue and it has had a life as a drama with perhaps more renown than its original format. There is a whole history of monologues written for radio and not just in England: Cocteau wrote at least five such pieces for Jean Marais. The primary reason, however, is that in its adaptation to radio, The Examination illustrates one of the great powers of audio drama: to release speech from narrative.

Harold Pinter’s monologue is pure speech, unadorned. There are no sound effects, nothing more than ambient room tone and precious little of that. What matters here is the words and how they are spoken–which, in audio drama, are the same thing. The words are “meaningful” but they are divorced from contextual detail. Is it day or night? There are no sonic clues. Is it present or past? The words are in past tense, but the speech is immediately in the present. What are these intervals of which the voice speaks? What is this silence? Who is Kullus? Who is the listener to whom the words are spoken? What is the “examination” taking place? What is this room? The questions have no perceptible answer.


Yet there is no doubt of the piece’s effectiveness. Unfolding over time, the piece forces a listener to accept its own terms. The listener gets no easy help from the dramatist; it simply speaks and cares not whether the listener needs more information or not. The rhythm of the work, its duration, becomes an essential element. The words assume qualities of ambiguity they lack on the page. Together with the relentless, irrecusable authority of Michael Gambon’s delivery, the rhythm merges with the ambiguity of the words to create a unique environment.

Most sound tends to locate speech in a distinct physical space. Eliminating sound removes a piece from the realm of the concrete and pushes toward abstraction: the more abstract the “meaning” of the words, the more abstract the experience of them. In The Examination the sound design perfectly matches the material. Pinter’s words flow smoothly, logically, directly, but they have no explicit reference. Consequently the listener follows the piece into a space that is not physical but rather psychological. Even the physical details given by the words do not make the space more concrete.


The ambiguity between space and place is not, as I’ve written before, a deficiency of audio. It is one of audio drama’s greatest tools. It allows–encourages, even–a level of compression and abstraction. On stage, the space is quite real and quite physical. The same applies to cinema. In audio drama, space and place are instantaneously fluid. Because the listener herself defines her own ideas of space and place without anything to contradict her otherwise, the experience of sound far surpasses the imagistic quality of visual art. In the hands of a dramatist who naturally tends toward abstraction, there is no more powerful tool.

For a completely different approach to the same text, compare Nurse With Wound’s “I Was No Longer His Dominant”


Lifetime – Nigel Moffatt

British radio drama has a reputation for being more than a little bit nobby. The past two decades have slowly changed this. Now its reputation is that it is largely old, middle class, Southern and white, like its listeners.

That’s glib, of course. Nevertheless, it has a grain of truth. Asian playwrights in the UK have made great strides on radio in the past couple of years. There have been Mumbai Chuzzlewits and Doll’s Houses set in India to prove the universality of the White European themes within all cultures, of course, but there have also been Asian voices that have won their own recognition at the Sony Awards and elsewhere.

The same is not true of African and Caribbean voices. Doubtless they are considered too lower class to be interesting and lack the exoticism and hipness of contemporary Asia. Back in the 1980s, though, things were different. After repeated riots throughout the decade at St. Pauls, Brixton, Tottenham and Handsworth, Britain finally woke up to the realities of immigration and racism. Part of the cure for the strife relied upon giving these people their own voice. Largely this meant in music, because the White Euro-American cliché is that all God’s chillun gots rhythm and that is clearly all that important to them, mon. (In fairness, Afro-Caribbean peoples perpetuate this rubbish themselves–see Michelle Wallace’s thoughts on the matter.) Playwrights however were also a part of this, one of the most notable being Nigel Moffatt.

His play Mamma Decemba was successful enough to win the Beckett Award in 1985. Ann FitzGerald of the venerable Stage and Television Today remarked of it, “How often can one see, in the English theatre, any member of England’s black community portrayed in such shrewd, affectionate detail; a fully rounded personality, not just a symbol for a political, social or racial statement, but herself?” (A very good question.) That success brought him to the attention of BBC Radio, for whom he wrote the brilliant Lifetime in 1987, winning that year a Giles Cooper Award for Best Radio Play.

It’s all very simple on the surface. It is an old man telling some story about his complaining wife. He drifts apart from her over time until finally he is at the end of his own lifetime. Within Archie’s monologue he tells the tale of his relationship with his wife, Marcy, which on almost every level seems broken beyond belief. Why on earth would anyone put up with such a nag? Within the primary story, Archie tells two other stories. The first concerns his affair de coeur with a much younger girl named Sarah. The second story deals with his married church friends Benjamin and Pam, and how their marriage is destroyed fatally by gossip, ending in both of their deaths. Through implicit comparison with these two relationships, his own relationship with Marcy becomes clear. The drama then takes on the quality of a cautionary tale.



The dramatic situation is familiar. Even the “plot” is familiar enough. But there is more to audio drama than mere dramatic situation and plot. Above all, there is speech. Out of this simple story, Mr. Moffatt wrests incredible poetry. Despite the play being spoken in what some people would call illiterate English, it is rich with imagery. The play begins with bird sounds and is simultaneously about “birds” (i.e. the slang term for women). As Archie’s relationship with these non-winged birds changes, so do the bird songs. These sonic images build upon one another until the inexorable conclusion where they all fall silent.


The use of language is remarkable not only for its realism but for its fancy. It commands, and rewards, attention. The play moves gradually from speech to silence, and so the sound design is appropriately spare. There is a faint yet present backdrop of birdsong and that is all. The sensitive and clever matching of the audio metaphor to the story is the linchpin of the piece. With such a demanding text any further sound would detract from its psychological effect. The poetry would be lost in competition.


Hard Frosts in Florence – David Pownall

Nigel Moffatt’s Lifetime is an example of sound design at its simplest. Speech dominates, supported by sound that is both realistic and symbolic. Sound design is rarely so simple. It often needs to indicate things that are not otherwise indicated.

Hard Frosts in Florence is a story within a frame. The story within deals with Michelangelo Buonarotti. He is an old man now, and has returned to his hometown of Florence where he once carved the most famous statue in Renaissance history. Though he has been away for thirty years, this time he has not returned to create. The statue of David has called him from Rome and given him a mission: destroy David so that art may have a future.


Michelangelo finds it impossible at first, but gradually steels his resolve. David Pownall’s lyrical style is at its finest here. The commingling of the past tense and the present tense, the clinical description and the psychological reflection, create a sensuous poetry for the voice. The words move seamlessly, from confession into narrative into rhapsody into description, from each to each without warning yet with impeccable cadence. The sound, too, complicates the speech. Subtly it serves as both descriptive of a scene and reflective of a mental state.

To raise my head from looking at the floor means pain, pain. But my mind: my mind is a lake, a deep, deep lake. There are storms. There are waves. God walks on the water. My spirit is very strong, too strong for my body. It is my spirit heard David, my spirit dragged me here from Rome, a long, arduous journey for a man my age. David spoke to me, imploring me, begging me to destroy him, to break him into a thousand pieces. Why must I suffer this way? God is crueler to artists than to other men.

SOUND: Approaching thunder.

Now I sit here beneath David, splinters of stone lodged in my heart, paint splattered on my soul. Yet I haven’t found the courage to look at him in the daylight. It will come. I know it will come. I must be patient with myself. Like all men ridden with faults and flaws, my imperfection is a mystery to me. How can I know what’s right? How can I do the work of the Lord, except in my work? In creation or destruction? I must look at this glorious, suicidal young man I made, I must! My heart might break–come on, look, be brave!

Give me a moment…give me a moment.

In their interplay with Michelangelo’s speech the sound here gives a clue to where the action is located. This is taking place outdoors where there is lightning. But the sound also shifts time into an immediate scene rather than a timeless reverie. It also moves the speech from an internal state to an external one. Martin Jenkins’ production plays with this quality of effect throughout the piece. Sometimes it is the speech that locates the sound in a distinct place; other times it is the sound that locates the speech. This sort of cross-indexing has a logical effect but also an emotional one, which he handles with an excellent sensitivity.


The framing story around the larger story is that Michelangelo is in confession. The play begins and ends in the same confessional, revealing that the entire piece is a flashback of some sort. The ending leaves the listener to wrestle with the essential theme of the script. Strained, shocked, stressed throughout the play that tests it, the idea holds that art is often akin to dealing with the devil and this evil rubs off on the artist. Regardless of the artist’s own moral component, the Philistines win every time; art teaches nothing. All the artist can do is create beauty, and yet beauty is not enough. Michelangelo ends the piece by pleading with the confessor–or is it with God Himself?–“Purify me…purify me…please…please….” A lifetime of masterpieces behind him, he still seeks purity through oblivion.


It’s no secret that I’m a fan of David Pownall’s work. Hard Frosts in Florence is an excellent script. Matching such a lyrical text with the acting talents of Paul Scofield, who is surely one of the finest performers of poetic drama in the past century, removes the audio drama from the simply excellent to the exquisite. This is lyrical speech at the very highest level. The subtle sound supports but also augments the drama in various ways. For understanding exactly how powerful a single human voice can be when working in concert with sound, there are few examples even half so fine as this.


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

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.