“Mine ear, I thank it, brought me to thy sound”: Will Shakespeare and the Radio

“Wanted: A Radio Shakespeare!” That is the title of an article in Radio Broadcast, published in the spring of 1926. Radio drama was still in its infancy back then, and those fed up with the theatrical entertainments on the air were quick to point out what many would claim thereafter: that Shakespearean drama was an excellent model for unseen theatricals, being that the bard relied less on scenery or physical action and more on words to create characters and tell their stories. “In the time of Elizabeth there were no stage-sets such as we know them today,” Gordon Lea remarked in his 1926 study Radio Drama and How to Write It. “I dare to believe that the scene supplied by the imagination of the audience in those conditions gave Shakespeare’s texts a fuller significance than many an elaborate setting of more modern times.”

To commemorate the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth on this day, 23 April, in 1564, I am going to consider playwright’s fate on commercial radio, whose producers, as The Magnificent Montague drove home, were less concerned with the cultural than with the popular. Then again, Shakespeare could always be relied upon to assuage those who looked upon radio with disdain and who listened far less frequently than they talked back. Among the Shakespearean plays readied for the airwaves were The Taming of the Shrew (soundstaged for the John Barrymore Theater on 26 July 1937, Hamlet (presented by the Theater Guild on 4 March 1951), Othello (adapted for Suspense as a two-parter broadcast on 4 May and 11 May 1953), as well as Julius Caesar (in a Mercury Theater production already discussed here).

Owing to the CBS Radio Workshop, we even get an audience with the immortal bard whose stained-glass likeness (shown above) faces me whenever I step inside my library to reach for a piece of pulp. Conjured up for an interview broadcast on 24 February 1956, he was asked: “Who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.” Not one of those “Who was buried in Grant’s tomb?” kind of questions, to be sure.

Hermia’s words in Midsummer Night’s Dream downplay the challenges of being sightless. A keen ear will succeed where the eye is rendered useless:

Dark night, that from the eye his function takes,
The ear more quick of apprehension makes;
Wherein it doth impair the seeing sense,
It pays the hearing double recompense.
Thou art not by mine eye, Lysander, found;
Mine ear, I thank it, brought me to thy sound.
But why unkindly didst thou leave me so?

Radio listeners need not be left in the dark. They find an audio guide in the narrator, a voice we can trace to the chorus in ancient Greece. From Shakespeare, the wireless playwright may freely borrow the aside, a convention much used in Victorian melodrama, but considered outmoded in 20th-century theater. In radio, those whispered confidences gained force and significance. Tuning in, we are being addressed, as if singled out, to receive privileged information, although often from the mouths of questionable personages with much to answer for. On the radio, the soliloquy became a convention in soap operatics, causing James Thurber to sneer:

The people of Soapland are constantly talking to themselves [. . .]. The soap people also think aloud a great deal of the time, and this usually is distinguished from straight soliloquy by being spoken into a filter, a device that lends a hollow, resonant tone to the mental voice of the thinker.

Whether it attests to the bard’s radio readiness or simply suggests a conservative approach to his works, adaptations for radio rarely went beyond abridgments. On the air, listeners were presented with a Streamlined Shakespeare, with mere scraps from King Lear, snippets from Romeo and Juliet, or digests of As You Like It.

“Poor Hamlet, he has never been so interrupted” the narrator of Norman Corwin’s “Seems Radio Is Here to Stay” sighs facetiously as the engineer in the broadcasting studio effect the prince’s execution: “Stand by to hear a Dane evaporate.” There was that time, though, when Hamlet went his own way, escaping the play that takes his name.

How would Shakespeare have fared as a radio dramatist, dealing with that special brand of patronage known as advertising? Just listen to his misadventures in Hollywood, as imagined in this Jerome Lawrence-Robert E. Lee comedy, in which a frustrated “Mr. Shakespeare” (voiced by Vincent Price) discovers that one of his plays is being considered as a “summer replacement for Milton Berle,” to be called A Date With Juliet.

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