The Ghastly Impermanence: A Listener’s Theater

Andrew Allan in 1956. Photo courtesy of the CBC.
Andrew Allan in 1956.
Photo courtesy of the CBC.

Every so often one of my friends who is inclined to overrate the phenomenon of theater will bring up some recent discussion among the theatrical so-called intelligentsia. For the most part I ignore these prompts because they are, on the whole, uninteresting. I really couldn’t care less about how theaters find money, whether casts and crews should have access to the financial records of a company, and a host of other issues theater people seem to fetishize. They are irrelevant to the art of the drama. The busywork of the stage is not my problem anymore than a lead actor’s reputation for being a two-fisted drinker is my problem, and I am in many ways sympathetic to George Jean Nathan’s idea that if every theater in the country were to close overnight it would scarcely be a loss.

However, one old saw that does particularly interest me–or, more accurately, galls me–is the notion that “theater has to be seen live or it’s not real theater.”

This is patent nonsense. The wrongheadedness of the statement belies an ignorance of history. Going back to Seneca, the history of the stage has often been to supply a place where plays are read. And if that is too ancient, and theater as we know it really only exists after Shakespeare, then I will refer you to a post-Shakespearean. From Samuel Johnson:

The truth is, that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players. They came to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation. The lines relate to some action, and an action must be in some place; but the different actions that complete a story may be in places very remote from each other; and where is the absurdity of allowing that space to represent first Athens, and then Sicily, which was always known to be neither Sicily nor Athens, but a modern theatre?

If it’s no absurdity that a space may represent Athens and Sicily and Birnham Wood and Paris and indoor and outdoor, then it is surely no absurdity that the absence of a space, or the idea of a space is equally if not more fictile. And if spectators come to hear a certain number of lines recited, there is no absurdity in assuming that they can through that “elegant modulation” create “just gesture” within their heads.

What really lies behind the insistence that reading a play or hearing a play is not a sufficient cultural activity is hubris. The bogus mantra that “theater only exists on a stage” serves as a type of cultural control: a way to control intelligent readers, to shame them, to pressure them to promote an art that time and again proves frankly that it wants nothing to do with them. There is also, in the statement, an inhumane elitism that matches the hubris. Namely, that if you do not live near a bustling center of theatrical activity, you have no interest in drama. If those in the theater make it massively inconvenient for people to see things they want to see–well, that’s your problem, because we’re the chosen priests and it is your duty to follow. And if you dare stay home and we do not deign to bring the theater to you, then it is your fault and you must not love drama.

That the written drama of the world far outclasses both in quantity and quality what actually gets produced on the American stage is, for these ecclesiastics, a problem that is elided, solved by getting people to pay for substandard live shows as a way of proving the theater’s “vitality,” as if to suggest that it’s better to go to the worst theatrical rubbish that insults your intelligence than not to go at all. No matter how poor the shows on display they are more “legitimate” than, say, reading Molière at home. Never you mind the patronizing implication: that the theater you want to see is exactly what is on display, or if it isn’t, is superior to what you want to read–which, if you truly love drama, is categorical nonsense.

Audio drama’s existence rests upon the premise that it is a social duty to bring drama to the people. Not just the chosen ones, but all of the people, in at least a quasi-democratic fashion. Since the 1920s it has served more than once the function of “the theater” for entire nations of people, most obviously Canada.

While it’s often England and the UK that are trumpeted as the leaders in radio drama, CBC radio drama was for many years the national theater of Canada. Strangely, what made that status possible was the rise of television, specifically American television.

At the founding of the CBC (as the CRBC) in 1932, Prime Minister Bennett stated that:

This country must be assured of complete Canadian control of broadcasting from Canadian sources. Without such control, broadcasting can never be the agency by which national consciousness may be fostered and sustained and national unity still further strengthened.

This went much further than the plans of Lord Reith at the BBC in England. Reith believed that it was essential to educate the public and to give them what they needed rather than wanted. Yet at the heart of a strong, old, central empire with an unassailable national identity, Reith’s BBC was much more regionalized than one might assume, with immense input from and dedication to the non-English nations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland–not to mention its entire Empire Service.

By contrast, Bennett’s Canada was a relatively young nation of less than seventy years. Only in 1926 had they been declared autonomous by the Balfour Declaration and only just in 1931 begun their fifty year argument about the Statute of Westminster that would finally lead to a fully patriated constitution in 1982. The idea of a nation and a national identity was fresh on the tongue of Canadians a mari usque ad mare.

National consciousness in Canada, too, relied much more upon national conference. England is about 130,000 square kilometers. Over a land mass roughly half the size of Saskatchewan, a national identity and its sense of tribal security is much easier to maintain. When all theaters are within a 150 mile radius, the idea of a national theater is easily manageable.

By contrast, Canada is a country of approximately 10,000,000 square kilometers. Population centers are dots on a map thousands of kilometers from the next. Joining the diverse regions and populations of Canada as a coherent country had been problematic itself (and remains so to this day). The idea that one could unite those regional artists into a national theater in Canada was a conundrum that could not be solved by stage but only by broadcast, which is precisely what Andrew Allan and his fellows at the CBC achieved.

The main obstacle in Allan’s way was the depressing reality that most productions in Canada were foreign. Even the theaters themselves were often owned outright by American or British companies, with Canadians left hung out to dry. The rise of television in the United States did Canadians a great favor: it pulled American money and talent into the new medium, leaving the airwaves free for Canadians to take over by themselves. CBC radio became almost a blank slate, and in the hands of Andrew Allan, the words on that slate were “national theater.”

Allan hired Fletcher Markle, Lister Sinclair, Patricia Joudry, Reuben Ship, W.O. Mitchell, Mavor Moore, Tommy Tweed and many other top-notch Canadian writers to write especially for his new production, Stage, and instead of reaching 2,000 people a week in some plush urban theater, reached somewhere between 300,000 and 700,000, with some people claiming over a million on certain shows.

This was not just a boon for dramatists but also for directors and actors. Against British and American competition, many of them had been shut out, shunted into semi-amateur festivals like the Dominion Drama Festivals. On Stage (and CBC Stage after it), Canadian actors and their voices were front and center. Because egos were low and public service was high, these actors alternated in repertory between roles both big and small. The lessons learned and the craft that was honed on radio led directly to the founding of professional stage groups like the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, formed by CBC alumnus Tom Peterson. The blossoming of Canadian theater in the 50s and 60s occured because radio drama had cleared the path.

It also had other, subtle yet far reaching effects, best detailed by an incident that occurred as Andrew Allan was considering handing in his resignation in 1954, tired of dealing with network brass.

Allan had actually written and signed his resignation letter the day he met a young woman on the train to Vancouver. From a small, remote town north of Edmonton, she recognized him and approached him enthusiastically, telling him the following:

We haven’t got any books to speak of, or pictures, or music, or anything. But I have a little radio in my room. Every Sunday night I go up there to listen to your plays. All week I wait for that time. It’s wonderful. It’s a whole new world for me. I began to read books because of your plays—all kinds of books I never thought I’d be interested in. And now I’m on my way to Vancouver to stay with my aunt, at the university. And it’s all because of you and your plays.

He tore up his resignation letter and continued to produce for another seven years.

As Allan himself once said, “Broadcasting is one of Canada’s principal means of survival: it had better not be shrugged off.” It was also clearly one of Canada’s means of spreading a joy for literature and drama. It is impossible to know how many people were touched by his efforts, but there can be no doubt that the number was significant, and that his work in radio drama meant far more to millions of people than mindless entertainment or a hackwork job. I am quite certain none of those listeners (or performers) ever thought their joy and love of plays was illegitimate simply because it wasn’t sanctioned by a bunch of smug British and American elitists mouthing off how it wasn’t really theater.

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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