Now on the Air: Sam Shepard’s True West

Well, it still does what it has been doing for over eighty years now. If you let it. And on this wet and stormy afternoon, I was ready to let it. Take me to a show, I mean. The radio can do that for you, even today. Drama on the air started out like this, back in the early 1920s: broadcasts right from the Broadway stage. In fact, such home entertainment predates wireless technology. As I discussed here, remote theater-going began in the 1880s by way of the telephone. However grateful for the service, those tuning in to wired or wireless theatricals must have realized right away that something was amiss.

Not being there to see what unfold as the curtain rises makes it difficult to follow all that transpires onstage, especially when characters are speechless or when one responds to the silent actions of another. You cannot hear a hand being raised, a cold shoulder being turned, or a door being opened quietly so as to escape the notice of the characters present.

Obviously, some translations are in order to avoid the chaos of an auditory void. This problem was initially dealt with by an announcer or narrator who filled in the blanks as the action progressed. Soon, however, it became clear that stage plays had to be properly adapted if they were to succeed in the non-visual medium. Carefully reworked, radio adaptations can be both culturally significant and aesthetically satisfying, even though those advocating pure audio drama—plays conceived for the airwaves—deem such efforts at translation inferior or downright detrimental to the of true aural arts.

Yesterday, BBC Radio 3 presented an audio version of Sam Shepard’s dark comedy True West (1980), by now a classic of American drama. The Radio Times heralded this very nearly “True West” as a copy that “could well be the drama of the year.” While that may be an overstatement, the radio adaptation, featuring David Soul in the role of Lee, is certainly an event worth catching. For those ready to grab, the Drama on 3 production by Peter Kavanagh is available online for the entire week; you may listen in (by visiting the BBC’s “Listen Again” page and selecting “Drama on 3”).

It is difficult for me to sit through an eighty-minute radio play. Listening to “True West,” I found myself scrubbing pots and pans, which is something I would not have done (and very rarely do) otherwise. It seems I needed to do something and that listening was not activity enough, as reading most certainly is. After years of studying and taking in radio drama, I still lack the attention span to take in a play I might easily follow in a theater, even if there is as little to see as there is in True West.

It is two brothers engaged in the kind of verbal sparring that makes for good radio drama. One of them is a successful (or at any rate, busy) Hollywood screenwriter, the other a seasoned and desert-hardened crook. They couldn’t be more different, it seems, and at first you can’t help but feel sorry for Austin, the writer, who is so rudely interrupted by his no-good sibling; but, while housesitting for their mother, who is away on a trip, the estranged brothers are forced to brush up on and against each other. In the friction that ensues, the tarnish of the one and the polish of the other rub off, muddling the personae and laying bare the common nature of both, their true insecurities and western discontent.

Soul is excellent as the irascible Lee, even though he sounds rather old for the part (especially when compared to Richard Laing as Austin). He reminded me of the cantankerous Arthur Spooner (Jerry Stiller) on The King of Queens. In fact, the entire play comes across like an extended sitcom episode, rather than a profound comment on the human condition. It also pales somewhat when revisited in the shadow of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), which pushes a very similar situation quite a bit further. That said, “True West” is still an outing to stay in for, an evening (or afternoon, or morning) of free theater, if you are at home and aching for such.

Unfortunately, the BBC Radio Player does not allow you to fast-forward, to skim and skip, which is bad news in case you, like me, need one or two (or more) intermissions to take in an audio drama of this length. So, I recorded it on my laptop and listened to it in instalments—theater chopped up for easy digestion and ready review—the True West of Silicon Valley.

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