The Ghastly Impermanence: Guided by Voices — A New Listener’s Guide to Audio Drama, Part 4

There is a definition of poetry as “The art which uses words as both speech and song, and, more rarely, as typographical patterns, to reveal the realities that the senses record, the feelings salute, the mind perceives, and the shaping imagination orders.” Removing typography from that particular litany, poetry resembles audio drama, which also uses both speech and song to reveal realities.

At the same time, it may also conceal realities, or create new ones outright. Once audio drama could free itself from the tradition of the stage, it was free to create a completely different kind of story. That type of story does not depend upon concrete details, nor does it depend upon traditional, “meaningful” semantics. Often words and language are turned against themselves, defying either the speakers or the listener to make them “mean” in any traditional way.

This type of story, sometimes called absurdist, made its way into the UK by radio for two major reasons. The first was that the English stage was so divorced from reality as to be nearly antiseptic. Because of the Theatres Act of 1843 which was still in effect until 1967, staged plays were subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain, affectionately referred to as “the Royal Smut-Hound” by critic Kenneth Tynan. To suggest that such censorship was illogical, capricious and nonsensical would be to understate the case. Effectively, anything that treated religion, sexuality, imperialism, politics, European community, class struggle–in short, anything actually important to the reality of postwar Britain–was banned. To quote Tynan:

His Lordship can impose a ban “whenever he shall be of opinion that it is fitting for the Preservation of Good Manners, Decorum, or of the Public Peace.” He need give no reason for his decisions, from which there is no appeal. Since he is appointed directly by the sovereign, he is not responsible to the House of Commons. He inhabits a limbo aloof from democracy, answerable only to his own hunches. The rules by which he judges plays are nowhere defined in law; to quote Shaw again and not for the last time, “they simply codify the present and most of the past prejudices of the class he represents.”

Radio plays, however, were not subject to the Theatres Act. As broadcast they were regulated directly by the BBC and not at the mercy of the Lord Chamberlain’s whims. Many top-notch dramatists who could not get produced on stage welcomed the chance to have their plays broadcast–to an even larger audience. The most notable example is probably Harold Pinter’s Landscape, first banned from the stage by the Lord Chamberlain, then rewritten for radio where it broadcast to an audience of around 700,000 listeners on the Third Programme.

Martin Esslin
Martin Esslin

The second major factor in the absurdist turn of British radio drama at the time was the appointment of a new Head of Radio Drama at BBC: Martin Esslin. Having come from BBC’s European Service, Esslin was keenly aware of developments in modern drama in the 19th Century while the English drama was still convinced that Shaw was as acceptably radical as theater could be.

Esslin knew and loved European absurdism. In fact the term “theater of the absurd” was his coinage, the title of his scholarly book on the subject. Not being himself English, he had no allegiance to the particularly trite, insular conservatism of postwar England. He believed it was the privilege and the duty of audio drama to deal with challenging material, to connect England to the rest of the world, and he threw himself into it full force. Alongside the “kitchen sink dramas” of writers like Bill Naughton and Brendan Behan, and the poetic “features” of creators like Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas, the absurdism of playwrights like Giles Cooper and Harold Pinter pushed the medium into areas the stage could hardly go with impunity.

The path in the United States was a bit more circuitous. Having no official censor (though there were certainly discussions on the subject) American playwrights could use the stage for their naturalistic explorations of Freud. They had no need to turn to radio. Furthermore, radio in the United States was almost solely the province of commercial broadcast, with artistic concerns nowhere in the formula. As television assumed commercial power, broadcasters threw in their lot with the new medium and left the old one, taking its formulaic approaches with them. By 1962 audio drama in the US was effectively gone.

But not quite dead. Rather, comatose. Where radio would no longer serve, the vinyl LP filled in. Old radio shows were preserved first on shellac recordings, but the innovations of the LP recording throughout the 50s, especially lengthening the time of a disc to 52 minutes, allowed drama to be preserved on vinyl. Broadway drama, radio shows, and stand-up comedy became common on records. These influences all merged in a new generation of comedians enchanted with the existence of the record as a bridge between these spoken forms and music. The most notable of them unquestionably was The Firesign Theatre.

The Firesign Theatre.
The Firesign Theatre.

Also over the decade of the 1960s, American playwrights became disenchanted with the commercial theater of both Broadway and its Off-Broadway strand. Instead they began to explore the underground, in coffee shops, in churches–even outdoors. Americans, too, were discovering European influences, especially Brecht and Artaud. Drama became looser in definition; theatrical spaces became anything but traditional. People who had experience in the off-off-Broadway independent movement who viewed audio drama as another tool, another medium in which to explore things that commercial theater clearly could not.

Yuri Rasovsky loved European and Asian theater and incorporated those ideas into his new National Radio Theater of Chicago. At almost the same time, Wisconsin Public Radio began what seemed a modest venture at redefining audio drama for the present. Earplay, as it was called, would go on to host some of the most prestigious audio dramas in American history, even drawing in playwrights disenchanted with Broadway, notably Edward Albee.

There are notable writers on the Earplay roster before Edward Albee–among them Megan Terry and Lanford Wilson–but Albee’s Listening brought such fame to the show that other writers followed with similar experiments: Arthur Kopit, Donald Barthelme and more.

At the same time the explosion of FM radio and particularly non-commercial radio brought with it many free-spirited “disc jockeys” whose on-air personalities veered off into the realm of the surreal and the absurd (itself a product of the surreal). Among these DJs was Joe Frank, whose eccentric monologues would be refined into some of the finest hours of American audio drama.

All these streams flowed together. The UK absurdist stream had largely tapped out by the mid-80s and the US version mutated into something quite different. Certain radio writers believe strongly that audio drama itself is the ideal medium for the theater of the absurd, even to this day. Unquestionably, though, without the influx of absurdist works from the 1960s and 1970s audio drama’s language would be much poorer for its lack. The kitchen sink plays re-introduced rough reality to listeners, something far beyond the neutral gentility of much English playwriting. Their contribution was to broaden the subject matter people thought possible. The absurdist plays by comparison kept the subject matter but broadened the vocabulary. It is that vocabulary that defines another one of the perimeters of audio drama.


Giles Cooper – The Disagreeable Oyster

You’re sitting at home alone. You’ve just listened to a rather droll talk show, witty yet somehow stuffy–like much of what you’ve heard on the radio in this year of 1957. You are sitting down reading the paper, waiting for the evening’s play on the radio. Probably another cracking thriller, or a charming comedy about a pair of toffs. The announcer reads:

ANNOUNCER: We present a play by Giles Cooper entitled, “The Disagreeable Oyster.”

BUNDY: You can say that again.

ANNOUNCER: “The Disagreeable Oyster.”

BUNDY: They do disagree with me, but how was I to know when I stood on the steps of the Rosedene Family and Commercial Hotel, thinking that the world was my oyster that–

BUNDY MINOR: Begin at the beginning.

BUNDY: Oh, the beginning is at twelve o’clock on a Saturday morning in my office at Craddock’s Calculators Ltd.  It is not a nice office. Even the typing pool have a narrow view of St. Paul’s, but poor old Bundy…

BUNDY MINOR: My name, Mervyn Bundy…

BUNDY: Deputy Head of Costing, has to put up with an office looking out on an air shaft, and all I can see is the upstairs part of a mercantile bank…


BUNDY: That’s the beginning.  I’m sitting at my desk on a fine May morning, wondering whether it’s worth starting anything else before the weekend begins.

The fourth wall tears asunder. The play begins with Mervyn Bundy talking to the announcer, or is it the listener–or is it himself? What is certain is that there is no single Mervyn Bundy: there are two. The listener is thrust into the absurd psychology of a man wrestling with his alter ego. From there it gets strange. The voices interchange, the alter ego taking over the main speech while the ego recedes. The line between the inside and outside blurs then disappears entirely. Interior monologues become interior dialogues. Internal voices speak with the external world and answer in return.

Such is the genius of Giles Cooper. Cooper wrote some thirty plays for radio before his death at age 48 in 1966. His mastery of the medium commanded respect, enough to name the awards for best radio drama after him. But it isn’t only his brilliant playwriting in The Disagreeable Oyster on display. It is the exquisite sound design by Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe. Oram and Briscoe with Dick Mills and a couple others would soon after this play become the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop for producing electronic music and sound effects for The Goon Show, Quatermass and the Pit and other experiments.

In The Disagreeable Oyster, Oram and Briscoe were asked to create both electronic sounds and analog effects to portray the rather alien mindscape of the central character. The sounds are outstanding, innovative, and yet somehow seamless.

Writing to the editor of BBC drama, Cooper wrote about the piece “I don’t know that one really ought to call it a play. It’s more like a piece of music.” Electronic sounds evoke an eerieness quite unusual to anything in audio drama of the time. Processed speech serves as a musical device. At times short verbal phrases are used in counterpoint to the primary voice like a musical leitmotif, starting quietly then becoming urgent. It is here more subtle, less extreme than in the Hörspiele of, say, Alvin Curran but it is a forceful element of the sound design.

Considering that the English stage theater was at perhaps its 20th Century nadir makes The Disagreeable Oyster even more remarkable. Radio was broadcasting work like Under Milk Wood, All That Fall, A Slight Ache and The Disagreeable Oyster while theater audiences were treated to more Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward. The disparity was immense.


Rhys Adrian – Watching the Plays Together

The Theatre of the Absurd constituted first and foremost an onslaught on language, showing it as a very unreliable and insufficient tool of communication. Absurd drama uses conventionalised speech, clichés, slogans and technical jargon, which is distorts, parodies and breaks down. By ridiculing conventionalised and stereotyped speech patterns, the Theatre of the Absurd tries to make people aware of the possibility of going beyond everyday speech conventions and communicating more authentically. — Prof. Jan Culik

If this onslaught is the call of all absurdist playwrights, each carries out the assault in an individual way. In the work of Harold Pinter, for instance, language becomes a barrier that conceals ominous truths; silence cracks that barrier and allows the ominous to seep through until it becomes unbearable. In the work of Rhys Adrian, language is the ominous truth. What makes that truth ominous is the very fact that it hides everything and reveals absolutely nothing. Even silence is powerless against it. The saving grace is that the ominous truth is completely and utterly ridiculous.

One of the clichés about absurdism is that absurdist playwrights mistrust language and that objects are more important than words–a holdover from German Expressionism where objects represent externalized emotions. But in the medium of audio drama, there are no objects. There is only language. And sound.

Watching the Plays Together starts with sound. Or, rather starts with language that is so unintelligible that is can only be called sound. It is speech piped in through a television set of some sort. A woman and her husband are watching television, only they aren’t because she keeps getting up to make tea whenever there is a lull and he is doing a crossword puzzle. The situation is familiar enough for the first eight minutes: it is a dull, bourgeois British couple living a dull, bourgeois life in a dull, bourgeois environment. Yet even in this frightfully typical situation, Adrian’s keen ear for vapid dialogue reveals a Pinteresque situation–only no one here ever shuts up.

Contrary to what people believe about absurdism’s avoidance of emotion, this dialogue contains emotion. It is emotion buried behind language, behind talk about some other subject. But this is far from somber. In fact, it’s laughable, a clear example of what Ionesco would call “the theater of derision.” This is, so to speak, the bass line beneath everything else that happens. And what happens, minute by minute becomes even more ridiculous.

After firmly establishing the scene and its personages, Adrian takes the play off into the realm of the truly absurd. While the couple are watching a play on television, the wife begins to talk about how an actor on television reminded her of him. She was watching a play on television in which another couple watch a play on television and discuss it, and that they talked all the way through the play too and from time to time the woman would leave the room to make some tea.

ROSEMARY: It wasn’t a humourous play. It was just that the play, the play they were watching, well, seemed to strike some chord or other in them.

GERALD: The people in the play?


GERALD: The people in the play watching the play within the play?


GERALD: Not the people within the play they were watching.

If you’ve got the sense by now that the author is playing with the listener, you would be correct. But he doesn’t stop there. The entire piece takes on a level of metanarrative that is intricate enough to make a viewer think he is trapped in a drawing by Escher. The dialogue is highly stylized, yet realistically banal. It’s also hilarious, filled with non-sequiturs and ironies of which the characters are completely unaware. The wife and husband lament the new trend in plays toward greater social realism yet here they are, characters in a play that denies such realism even exists. And of course the listener himself is listening to a play about watching a play about people who watch plays within plays and are transformed by the reality of the play within the play within the play with lethal consequences. And not content with that, Adrian himself wrote a play for two separate actors to be played within the play and converging at its end.

The play is a rumination on the relationship of truth and story. But whose truth? Whose story?

Rhys Adrian was a master absurdist with an exquisite ear and sensibility. That he isn’t more well-known stems completely from the fact he wrote primarily for radio. This is a play as brilliant as anything in English drama in the 1980s, a premium example of what can be done with apparently simple yet highly stylized language.


Joe Frank – That Night

NARRATOR: What was the point of a life of self-sacrifice when everything could end so abruptly? So apparently without meaning. But meaninglessness was all around me. One night at Le Dôme, the maitre d’ proudly showed me and my date to the employee’s washroom and seated us on toilets. When I protested, he lifted a water pitcher, smashed it on the floor and demanded to be taken to his mother.

American absurdism comes from a source distinct from the British. French existentialism reached the United States in the 1950s as it reached the UK. In the UK, however, it did not take hold in the same way. American existentialism tended to concentrate upon individual ego rather than upon social reality. This was not the existentialism of Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, built upon social and political defiance, but the existentialism of later Sartre: hedonistic, self-indulgent. Combined with the massive American collective vanity, such “existentialism” gave rise to the hipster à la Norman Mailer. American absurdism, stemming from this, tends to be formalized: extremely individualistic, sharply ironic, clinically detached, oddly libertine. The silent motto seems to be: When everything is absurd, anything goes.

Joe Frank’s work, such as That Night, proceeds from these qualities. It is definitely exemplary of just what anything goes means. The synopsis from The Joe Frank Wiki supplies the following description:

Joe’s uncle drowns while fishing a week after retiring, urban animal criminals, voyeur complains about a nude woman, sex with nuns in a limo, an elderly marching band and homecoming parade has been lost for 40 years and is being chased by homecoming queen’s fiancé, creating life-size maps, to Jesus.

The description is accurate. It also tells a listener nothing of the cumulative effect. Mr. Frank’s story slips from scene to scene, voice to voice, consciousness to consciousness without warning, tied together only by the narrator’s voice. The narrator presents each piece of the story as something happening happening directly to him, yet each section’s characters are enacted with different voices that are clearly not the narrator’s. Sometimes those voices represent the narrator speaking through a character, sometimes they are speaking to the narrator. Sometimes monologue, sometimes dialogue. The play of words, images and scenes moves along at its own whim. This is absurdism by way not of expressionism but rather of surrealism.

Sketch of Joe Frank by Tony Millionaire.
Sketch of Joe Frank by Tony Millionaire.


That Night plays as a series of phantasies within a central consciousness, not too distant in theme from Giles Cooper’s Disagreeable Oyster. But the form here is even more extreme. In Cooper’s play there is a sense that beneath it all is a linear, realistic narrative. In Joe Frank’s world no such sense exists. There is only the story, and the story is whatever happens next, no matter how tangential, how bizarre, how (un)truthful. As Mr. Frank put it in an interview in Index magazine:

The truth is open for discussion, John. It can always be challenged. A lie, on the other hand, can be proved with impenetrable dark logic. Truth is relative, dubious. A lie is absolute, incontrovertible. But without lies, the truth would have no context in which to be appreciated. And so, yes, I lied. But only to make the truth forever shine like a great castle on a hill, like a grand citadel in which we can all take refuge.

What separates Joe Frank’s work from much of American absurdism, however, is a deep commitment to the social dimension of the absurd. In his work, he often picks up the standard American absurdist tropes–for instance, the obsession with sex, mortality and the natural world–but the tropes work differently here. Sex and death are simple matters of fact. That they often come across as bizarre is exactly the point of absurdism: they are what make the world absurd. Everything else political and social is not removed from them, but rather proceed from them. They are the relationship of mortality to the natural world. This philosophical musing features more clearly in Mr. Frank’s other work, but even in That Night it is palpable.

Joe Frank sits at the origin of much of the so-called storytelling programming on public radio these days. Snap Judgment would not be possible without Mr. Frank’s innovations two decades earlier and the host of This American Life, Ira Glass, got his first job in public radio working as an assistant to Mr. Frank. The debts are obvious. But the official NPR version of storytelling concentrates on “non-fiction.” Presumably this serves as a marketing tool to convince people who tune into radio for news. Such people believe in the “truth” of stories and storytelling. Only “non-fiction stories” relevant to the self-congratulatory liberal listener who still believes in so-called truth and so-called non-fiction. As Mr. Frank himself noted:

This American Life has inspired this proliferation of programs where people tell their stories, and I think it’s gotten—there’s too much of it. I find it annoying, because it’s very uneven. Now it just seems like everybody’s telling a story, and it’s beginning to sound narcissistic, and I’m thinking, Who gives a shit about your story? You’re just another person telling your story. How many do we need?

Mr. Frank does not believe in such divisions. He in fact parodies such divisions in his work on UnFictional. Truth, lies, inner, outer–who cares? Either it reveals or it does not. Because ultimately revelation is the goal. Revelation of the truth in all stories is the key to unlocking the absurd. Whether it be Joe Frank’s truth or Rhys Adrian’s or Giles Cooper’s or the individual listeners, that truth is the guideline for absurdist drama, just as it is for absurd living in the modern world. It is not a rejection of truth but a search for it, not nihilistic, as some say, but a search for belief in a world where belief is suspect.

I should tell you to buy Joe Frank’s work. So I am. Visit Joe Frank’s website and pick up free downloads, along with CDs and digital collections.

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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