The man behind the counter looked none too pleased when I handed over my money. This one, he said, had escaped him. The item in question is a rare little volume on radio drama, written way back in 1929, at a time when wireless theatricals were largely regarded, if at all, as little more than a novelty. In his foreword, Productions Director for the BBC, R. E. Jeffries, expressed the not unfounded belief that its author, one Gordon Lea, had the “distinction of being the first to publish a work in volume form upon the subject.”
Nothing to get excited about, you might say. I know, it is not exactly a prize pony, this old hobbyhorse of mine. Few who come across it today care to hop on, let alone put any money on it, particularly now that it has been put out to the pasture known as the internet, the playing field where culture is beaten to death. So, should not any bookseller be pleased to part with Mr. Lea’s reflection on echoes? Not, perhaps, when the money exchanged amounts to no more than a single pound coin. History often comes cheaply; it is the price for ignoring it that is high.
I had been on the lookout for Radio Drama and How to Write It while researching for Etherized Victorians, my doctoral study on old-time radio in the United States. After no volume could be unearthed in the legendary and much-relied on vaults of the New York Public Library, let alone anywhere else, I gave up the search, comforted by the thought that Mr. Lea was, after all, a British hobbyhorse fancier, far removed from the commercial network circus in which I had chosen to study that ill-treated bastard of the performing arts.
It helps to take the blinders off. After all, I spotted the obscure volume last weekend, on another trip to Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh bordertown known the world over (by serious collectors, at least) as the “town of books.” Now, I am always anxious to put my loot on display. And so, rather to let it sit on my bookshelf, I shall let Mr. Lea’s pioneering effort speak for itself:
It is asserted that no play is complete until it has an audience. This is untrue. One might as well say that a tragedy of emotion between man and wife, enacted in the privacy of their own drawing room, is not a tragedy, because the general public are not invited to watch it. A play is complete when once it is conceived by its author. But, inasmuch as this fallacy is still popular, playwrights still construct their plays with an audience in mind.[. . .].
Thus, Lea reasons, the stage play
must be such as can appeal to a crowd, as distinct from the individual. This is a difficult thing to do, but such is the power of crowd-psychology, that if the play appeals to a section of the crowd, the disparate elements can be conquered and absorbed into the general atmosphere. An audience may, at the beginning of the play, be a company of individuals, but before long hey are by the devices of stage-production welded into one mass with one mind and one emotion. If the play is incapable of this alchemy, it fails to please and becomes a thing for the solitary patron.
There, then, are the conditions which govern the production of the stage-play, and [ . . .] within the limitations of the theatre are wonderfully efficacious.
But, is it necessary to accept these limitations? Is there no other medium more flexible?
In stage drama there is “always the problem of the fourth wall,” the solving (or dissolving) of which lead to intriguing if unsatisfactory compromises. In a production of The Passing of the Third Floor Back, for instance, the footlights were turned into an imaginary fireplace. “[V]ery ingenious,” the author quips,
but the effect is that, when the players sit before the fire, you have the spectacle of people staring straight at you, and, unless you imagine yourself to be a lump of coal or a salamander, you don’t get the right angle.
I was reminded of my experience seeing What Every Woman Knows at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, which thrust me into a similar hot spot I did not relish.
Sure, sound-only drama can readily break the barriers of convention. Yet when Lea dreams of the new medium and its potentialities, he has technology, not commerce or politics, in mind. Whether state-run or commercially sponsored, radio was never quite as free and free as the air. The audience, its size and sensibilities, always mattered more than the voice of the single speaker.
Nor am I convinced that a play is a play without playing itself out before or within an audience, whatever its number. A thought must be communicated to mean, and indeed to be. It is for this reason that I air out my library from time to time, to dust off those forgotten books and share what I find there in this, the most flexible medium of all . . .