The Anarchy of Silence: Being Absent/Absent Being

Well, what does it suggest? My silence, I mean. Is it a sign of indifference or an exercise in difference? Does it bespeak failure or betoken activity elsewhere? Does it spell death, metaphoric or otherwise? Mind you, I have merely extended my customary weekend retreat from the blogosphere for a single day; and, such is the nature or curse of keeping a public journal—of being nobody to anyone—it may have gone virtually unnoticed. My absence, after all, is no more eloquent than your silence. It requires your presence to come into being.

The house is quiet once more. It resounds with absence. After a weekend of entertaining and sight-seeing, of silent film (with our house guest, Neil Brand, accompanying Buster Keaton’s Cops and The General at the local university’s Arts Center) and talks about radio drama in the still of a summer garden halfway up in the Welsh hills, I alone remained behind.

It is quiet, but never quite silent. There is the storm, rain lashing against the pane of the window, winds strong enough to make the walls of my room shiver. There were the shouts of “goal” on the television earlier today, as even I could not keep myself from having a peek at the World Cup goings-on. There were a few phone calls. There was a moment of reflection on the career of director Vincent The Damned Don’t Cry Sherman, who died last Sunday at the age of 99. And then there was my own voice, reading aloud the lines I have been writing. Yes, I have been writing.

As announced, I have begun anew to write a play. I decided upon a ghost story, a story of absence and presence—the very presence of absence. After looking at various scraps, jotted down ideas for radio plays, I kept in mind what I hinted at in my recent remarks about sound effects. I have used a problem in sound as the starting point for aural play. I won’t relate here and now just what the play is about, lest it should not come about after all if thus prematurely released. It will have to suffice that it features a disembodied voice, imagined sounds, and an improbable architecture. Echoes of that tower I mentioned previously.

In all this, the play is hardly experimental. It is a rather plain story; but one that insist on being told on the air, rather than any other medium. It aims at conveying a mood, at casting suspicion on the speakers, a shadow of doubt cast by the sounds and silence they make. Yes, they “make silence.” Too often we think of silence as being nothing, even though we insist on it being golden by virtue of its rarity. It is glorified as much as it is dreaded. It is a malevolent deity that renders us speechless by holding its tongue.

Now, in old-time radio, silence was anathema. It was not deemed golden enough to fill time on the air, time set aside to fill the coffers of the sponsors. It was dreaded, all right; but tunes and talk and sound effects trickery were let loose upon it to assure its sound defeat. As Charles Addams suggests in the above visualization of the shrieks, shots, and thuds—the sound and the fury—of 1940s radio thrillers, silence was rarely called upon to make that difference, to speak of promises or signal impending doom. It was talked to death and yet survived in my favorite chapter of Carlton E. Morse’s “The Thing That Cries in the Night,” a noisy serial thriller that confronted a soldier of fortune with a silent and invisible adversary (which I discussed here at length)). If a speaker confronts an uncertain someone without getting a response, does the silence mean the certain absence of the addressee? Or is it a mark of the listener’s defiance? The anarchy of the unseen unheard!

I am hoping to create such uncertainties in my play—a mystery that depends to some degree on the listener’s picking up of a prominently dangled clew. If it goes unnoticed, the revelation might yield a moment of surprise; if it is perceived by the audience before the character in the play catches on, there may come into being a prolonged thrill of suspense. Radio is the very medium for such turns of the screw.

2 Replies to “The Anarchy of Silence: Being Absent/Absent Being”

  1. Your post succeeds in whetting my appetite for the coming radio play.I have two associations reading your post.1) One of the first sound films in Germany, M (1931), by Fritz Lang (1931) departed from the trend in sound films to flood the senses with collages of sounds. Some of the scenes contained no sounds at all but were a celebration of silence, the sound of a deserted, nighttime street, the silence interrupted only by sporadic footsteps, or a quick whistle to signal to someone. These scenes are powerfully effective, even today.2) I\’ve watched the same Buster Keaton film (Cops) and others, but found the music unfitting, and in the case of my tapes from German TV, the music is interrupted by an overacting voice reading the titles in German. I found myself turning the volume down and setting up a jazz CD of Bennie Moten (20\’s/early 30\’s), programming just the instrumentals to play. The mood was perfect. The music seemed absolutely synchronized to the action.

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  2. Those early sound films were most successful when they avoided dialogue; more static than the camera at first, the concealed microphone rendered scenes stagy, rather than cinematic: a heightened life-likeness that could be the death of art.Title cards read aloud? No wonder you turned the sound down and went in search of an alternate soundtrack. Germans do so much harm with their dubbing. Silent film accompanists have to be willing to play second fiddle. Not unlike the translator, they triumph in the act of effacement.

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