The Ghastly Impermanence: Guided by Voices — A New Listener’s Guide to Audio Drama, Part 3

Photo by Alex Montjohn.
Photo by Alex Montjohn.


Last week I dealt with monologues as an illustration of the uses of speech. Many people, however, feel that drama truly begins when two or more people participate. Sidestepping the rhetoric for a moment, the questions remain. What does it mean to participate? What is the actual function of a second voice in radio drama?

The three plays in this discussion answer those questions in different ways. One treats how two people can occupy the same physical space yet two different psychological spaces. Another deals with two people who occupy two different physical spaces but share the same cyberspace. The last concerns two people in the same physical space, trying through language to establish a common psychological space in which they can communicate.


Mary’s – Wally K. Daly

Shortly after winning his first Giles Cooper Award for Best Radio Play in 1983 for Time Slip, Wally K. Daly spoke with his friend, fellow actress Elizabeth Rider. Ms. Rider had appeared in a few plays written by Mr. Daly. She had noticed the lack of decent roles for women on radio, stage and television, and suggested that he should do something about it. The result was Mary’s, written shortly after Time Slip yet not broadcast for almost four years, supposedly due to its subject matter–but mostly due to the fact that the BBC had entered its most reactionary period, brought on largely by Thatcherism and the wave of smug prudery that came along with it. Once it finally did air on BBC 3 in 1987, away from the numbing scrutiny under which Radio 4 labored in the David Hatch years, it won great acclaim and became Wally K. Daly’s second play to win the Giles Cooper Award.

The play features two voices but is not truly a dialogue. Rather, two monologues interlock at moments to provide contrasting points-of-view on a familiar, legendary story: the life of Jesus Christ. The central conceit of the piece is that Mary Magdalene’s story has been erased from official history. It reveals Jesus to be a man with God in him, but only a man. But it doesn’t stop there. The entire life of Christ, and his destiny, are, in Mary Magdalene’s story, an obsession not of Jesus himself but rather of Jesus’s mother, Mary, who covers up her own untimely pregnancy by tying it into an ancient prophecy and comes to delude herself in it so deeply that she sends her son to his death by crucifixion.

Listening to Mary, mother of Jesus, it is difficult not to think she is lying. Barbara Jefford’s excellent portrayal reveals that this is a deeply troubled woman, and probably one that is touched in the head. Listening to her speak of certain things–the sensuous details of how the angel of God came to her, the compulsiveness in how she constantly asks her son for any word about his destiny, the calculated brutality in her voice as she talks about how a child asked for Barabbas–everything leads to the conclusion that this woman is more than a little unhinged.

By contrast, Mary Magdalene’s story is so simple, so forthright, so passionate, so heartbreaking that it is easy to empathize. Her story is a classic of unrequited love. She seems to want nothing but the man who makes her feel, after a life of oppression and squalor, finally clean.

She is by far the more sympathetic character. For all of this, however, there is no assurance that her story is completely true either. But ultimately the author prevents the listener from ever knowing. The play is set on the second day after Jesus’s death. Both women tell their stories simultaneously. All the listener knows for sure is that one story has been told billions of times and that the other has been erased from history. Either might be true, both could be false. What happens on the third day, the listener must decide for herself.

It is this clever ambiguity that makes the story. The drama here does not come from two characters struggling against each other face to face in a narrative triangle of protagonist and antagonist. Instead, the listener himself creates the drama by listening to two contradictory tales and filling in the gaps. Sound apart from speech here is minimal: there is a short opening collage of sounds representing the crucifixion, and that is all. As the play itself is about establishing meaning through internal story, so the sound design bows out of the external world after it sets the scene.


Hang Up – Anthony Minghella

John Perry Barlow once wrote that “Cyberspace is where you are when you’re on the phone.” In that abstract, disembodied space one of the most difficult challenges is how to establish something like a truth, in the physical sense. Online, a person is not a person but a persona. That persona may have nothing at all to do with the actual personal truth. Because it is not a physical space, it is impossible to test anything that happens in that space by physical sensation. What is “true” in cyberspace, therefore, is largely a matter of faith.

Anthony Minghella understood this peculiar quality of cyberspace well. In his work the possibility of communicating really, even face to face, often breaks down in language. When language is all there is, true communication becomes even less likely. This is the theme of his radio play Hang Up.

Throughout all his stage plays and even into his film work, Minghella’s primary concern as an author has been with penetrating through language to find actual meaning. In the late writer’s own words

Language is a kind of smokescreen. It very rarely conveys exactly what we want to say and it very rarely expresses in any kind of accuracy the feelings that we have. And that is why I think sometimes writing which is too beautiful or too finished or too transparent always sounds like a lie. It always sounds like you can hear the writing, because most of the time we are stumbling towards meaning, we are stumbling towards some kind of communication.

This is a familiar enough theme in late 20th Century theater. At its most nihilistic this is the major theme of Eugene Ionesco and Edward Albee. Some would include Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett in that statement. However, Minghella’s work moves in a different direction. It shares a sense of bleak futility common to those other playwrights, but where their works have ceased to “stumble towards meaning” and have retreated from the very idea that it is possible to communicate, Minghella’s plays absolutely insist upon the stumbling.

In Hang Up, the two lovers are stumbling toward the end of an affair. At first, language is merely formal. The emptiness is palpable. Then it turns from empty chit-chat to deadly serious, only the seriousness is abrupt and without warning. It is also matter of fact–but only for a moment, then it recedes once again into trivia and aversion.

The ominous, confusing, sinking feeling of love slipping away from two people here lays naked for examination like a patient etherized upon a table. Minghella here turns the echt British penchant for avoiding unpleasantness or saying anything directly into an incisive exploration.

This is as maddening as anything in absurdist theater. It is also painfully accurate and deadly realistic. This is dialogue, yes, but in this dialogue words obscure meaning, evade it desperately. Empty words hide the truth of the situation because the truth is far too painful to face directly. At the bitter end when all becomes clear, there is a momentary hope of redemption, where the two lovers are emotional and direct–a glimpse of what they must have been like at the beginning of their affair.

But the redemption does not come. It cannot.

Hang Up won the Prix Italia Award for Fiction on its debut. It is easy to hear why. The script is brilliant but the production even more so. The acting of Juliet Stevenson and Anton Lesser captures at once the most universal feelings–confusion, secrecy, avoidance, reticence and all the rest–with very particular details: a breath, an interruption, a soft word, a rapid plea. Their control of tone is impeccable, aided nobly by Robert Cooper’s subtle direction.

Minghella’s two plays for radio are both outstanding examples of English radio at its finest. Both have been adapted for stage and both have failed miserably multiple times. These pieces belong to the world of sound. Undistracted by visual stimuli, unanchored by solid physical space, the listener can recreate and reimagine them in as many ways as there are listeners. Hang Up shows not only the power of speech to create drama, but of radio to go beyond embodied ideas into the realm of direct emotion, whether in cyberspace or elsewhere.


Goldfish Girl
– Peter Souter

If Ortega y Gasset is right that external, mechanical plots ran their course in the 19th Century and that the true task of modern writers lies in the creation of “imaginary psychology,” then it makes perfect sense writers should explore the boundaries of both imagination and psychology. Somewhere near the outer boundaries of both is the phenomenon of memory: a largely incomprehensible mystery to most human beings, it nevertheless affects imagination and alters psychology.

The cinema is littered with plays about memory gone wrong, from Greta Garbo in As You Desire Me right on down to the latest remake of Total Recall. This theme has also lured numerous writers of the last hundred years. The subject of memory and the ineffable, mysterious way that memory defines and redefines reality continues to fascinate anyone interested in probing the place of human beings in the universe, whether it be James Joyce or Philip K. Dick.

In that sense, the thematic center of Peter Souter’s play should strike any listener as completely familiar. A man goes to visit a woman in a hospital (established with subtle sound cues at the opening of the piece) and she believes he is a doctor. Instead, he brings her a tall skinny half soya latte with no cinnamon and a blueberry muffin and they begin to talk about speed dating. It becomes clear she is having trouble recalling words. Still, her personality is cheerful, bubbly, even a bit girlish, though it is clearly the voice of a mature woman.

Mr. Souter’s swift and clinical delineation of the woman’s mannerisms and personality tell a listener all one needs to know. And yet, somehow, for all its straightforwardness of dialogue, the piece soon becomes disorienting. Not disorienting in the manner of Arthur Kopit’s Wings or Samuel Beckett’s Cascando, or something quite so extremely internal, but disorienting nonetheless.

With each bit of interchange between the two, the story becomes a little clearer, yet is never obvious. The man and woman find each other beautiful and seem to have a good relationship even though they have apparently just met–at least, from one point of view. But they haven’t just met. They are in fact husband and wife. But it is far from that simple. Ally has had an embolism burst in her brain, resulting in an acute case of amnesia. And the embolism isn’t even the worst thing that has happened. As the memories return, Ally’s personality slowly begins to change, but not in an immediately recognizable way.

As the Society of Authors judges wrote when awarding the Tinniswood Award to him for Goldfish Girl in 2009:

Goldfish Girl is a perfectly paced radio drama. Just two characters sustain the action, the story behind the play unfolding through their conversations. The sophistication of this carefully crafted dialogue draws the reader in so vividly that you can hear the voices of Ally and Joe in your head. Peter Souter at first withholds but then gradually discloses, until in the final moments of the play the emotion bursts through with haunting power and resonance.

Joe and Ally both share a history, a psychological and physically defined space with each other. Joe is completely aware of it, while Ally remains ignorant. Where Mary’s is about contrasting two different versions of the same story, Goldfish Girl has only one version, only one story, but that story is broken by the inability of its narrator to share it and have it be truly known to the other. As Ally suggests, to remember is to remember pain and fear. Her amnesia insulates her from the horror of her emotional memories. What is true for Ally is also true for Joe: emotion is dangerous not just to their relationship but also to their identities.

That emotion leaks through Joe’s story of his life with Ally, at seemingly random points, until finally it bursts forth and destroys their relationship–and, less obviously, their identity–as it becomes too painful to bear and recedes into forgetfulness. Again. And again. And, as the ending clearly indicates, again ad infinitum. Each succeeding day will be more of the same: a few words remembered, others irretrievable; the same story told and retold with the same inevitable, catastrophic ending; and, above all, the same passionate devotion to recovering a past that one does not wish to recover.

The powerful script is, above all about, emotion. In production, anything even remotely false or exaggerated would destroy it. Fortunately Mr. Souter’s script is well-served by Gordon House’s direction. The sound design is always present in the background, always indicating the physical space (and to some degree the psychological space) in which the two actors operate but never obviously symbolic. Masterful in its understatement, it calls no attention to itself, and is easy to fail to notice.

I have always admired Juliet Stevenson, ever since I saw her in Antigone back in the 1980s, but her performance here as Ally is truly outstanding. Mr. Souter’s script creates a fragile tension between the happy, cheerful personality of amnesiac Ally and the extremely dark personality that must have led her to her current state. A weaker actress would fail to grasp the irony, or perhaps play the role for cheap sympathy, but Ms. Stevenson commands this role as though it were the most natural thing in the world, without excess, without trying for sympathy.

Where Ms. Stevenson plays with an almost childlike, puckish tone, Alex Jennings plays with a typically English reserve and ironic humor. Yet within his character’s arc he goes from glib to deadly serious, sometimes in the same sentence. His Joseph knows that this cycle in which he and his wife find themselves is eternally doomed, that the mood will always go from morning cheer to evening misery, that every memory holds the potential to cause tragedy. Yet Mr. Jennings plays Joe with such a warm resolve and quiet devotion it is impossible not to admire him. There is no trace of the maudlin in his performance or Ms. Stevenson’s. Their chemistry completely convinces me, so much that it is hard to imagine any other actors in the roles.

Goldfish Girl is above all about the price of truth but also the price of love. Where in other playwrights (such as Harold Pinter or Peter Handke) the modern penchant for inflicting psychological violence on others by toying with their memories or denying them their history and identity serves as a platform to comment upon the impossibility of human communication, Mr. Souter, I think, believes that human communication is not only possible but essential. Trying to communicate is precisely what makes us human. That it is often painful, even brutal, does not excuse one from trying. To try, and to try with selfless love is the noblest thing of all.


To answer the original questions I posed at the beginning of this piece, to participate in a drama means to try. One tries to establish communication. This need not always be in the present. Sometimes one communicates with and about things that are past–sometimes even about things that have not yet come to pass. The function of the second voice in this quest for communication is to offer an alternate point of view, not because a single point of view is insufficient–clearly it is sufficient, for all humans live with their own singular points of view–but rather because it increases the possibilities for ambiguity but also for diversity. More than one point of view means more than one possible psychological space in which drama may operate. Out of that diversity, sometimes, arises a meaning that would never have occurred any other way.

I will pick up that theme next time.

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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