Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Radio | Theatre | When Seneca and H.G.Wells invented golf (inside their shared time machine)

it was on the 2nd floor on Coronado Street
I used to get drunk
and throw the radio through the window
while it was playing, and, of course,
it would break the glass in the window
and the radio would sit there on the roof
still playing
and I'd tell my woman,
"Ah, what a marvelous radio!"
A Radio with Guts, Charles Bukowski

I can’t believe that the theme I have to contend with on my first week of writing takes everything I know and understand about performance and shoves it into a little box; albeit a fascinating box, and a clever box; but a box nonetheless. And then to add insult to injury, a fellow worm has infiltrated my draft article, and used pretty much the same opening gambit. Oh no wait, I can believe it. Perhaps we should re-name this ‘Casual References to H.G.Wells Week’.

To counteract my only-when-doing-the-ironing approach to listening to radio plays, I’ve spent my morning listening to one of the great phenomena of radio “performance”, H.G.Wells The War of the Worlds, read and performed by Orson Welles (who, incidentally, is the voice of the apocalypse, if there was ever to be one: a voice, not an apocalypse. Anyone watching Prof. Brian Cox will know that The Apocalypse is a dead cert; although an increasingly attractive dead cert when delivered in the I-can-woo-you-with-stars-science-and-a-piano dead-pan of a man who once told us that things can only get better, and now informs us that they’re going to get much, much worse.) That overly large parenthesis has a point: the information you are giving has a reception based, if not entirely, then largely on the manner in which that information is given; and for the purposes of this article on radio and “theatre”, on the way it is performed.

It’s probably fair to think of radio as synecdoche performance, just as theatre, film, music, and writing are. But it’s also, to my mind, pre-performance, offering up a non-space in which only language and inference play a part. As Orson doing Herbert discovered, it is possible to trick an entire nation into belief, a belief that would not have happened had The War of the Worlds been put into a theatre. The intellectual problem with radio is that it will always be a siphon for different types of information; news (fact: ha); debate; music; performance; soaps; comedy; social and economic affairs etc etc. Obviously the Radio Times, and the regimented system of News Bulletins, and PM (that’s 5pm, everyday, except the weekends) mean that you could, should you want to, find out exactly what is on the radio. But unlike the television, the radio occupies this odd little realm of its own: that of the often brilliantly imparted, and often unintentionally received realm of information. 

Thinking back to 9/11, and turning on the t.v to see those planes hit the sides of those buildings, I remember knowing it was true and disbelieving it entirely. Turning on the radio in 1938 to hear Welles reading Wells’s words - “ We know now that in the early years of the Twentieth Century this world was being watched by intelligences greater than man’s, yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns, they were scrutinised and studied. Perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”- I think I would have felt the exact opposite: knowing it isn’t true, and yet somehow believing every word. That is the extraordinary potency of performance, and the extreme danger of theatricality. At its best theatre is exhilarating, terrifying, orgasmic, and heart-shattering and always too good to be true; at its worst, it is a warm glass of white wine on a muggy day when the tubes are stopping in every tunnel; far too close to the reality of your mundane life. The War of the Worlds was everything radio-theatre should be, someone just forgot to tell the audience it WASN’T REAL (actually they didn’t, the audience just tuned in too late).

After Wells came a whole host of playwrights working specifically in radio: Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood is subtitled A Play for Voices, and indeed when put on-stage is a confusing visual cacophony, made confusing simply by its physical realisation. Caryl Churchill and Tom Stoppard both started by writing for the radio; both formulating a style of narrative intercutting and a dependence on the alacrity of language and specificity of delivery which reflects in their stage work – Top Girls, a stage play?!!  Stoppard, moving into film writing, took much of that groundwork with him (I’m thinking here of some of the dialogues in Shakespeare in Love, where the fabric of the speeches, and they are speeches, is made up of three or four linguistic styles, borrowing and then subtly inserting the oft-quoted lines of Shakespeare and Marlowe). This could only be done because Stoppard, brilliant playwright, was recognising a collage-ing system built by other brilliant playwrights who came before him; and one that is closely entwined with elements of radio-writing. However, Shakespeare and Marlowe weren’t radio playwrights. What a preposterous idea, the radio hadn’t been invented, duh! Is it possible to be a product designer for a process not yet invented? To write a novel, a play, a song, for an audience or for a technology that cannot even be imagined? The answer is yes, else my article would be in very short thrift.

To borrow from some esteemed cultural historians: What have the Romans ever done for us? Apart, obvs, from all the stuff like schools, and running water, democracy, sanitation, the roads, medicine, and……….wine? I’ll tell you one thing they didn’t do for us, and that’s invent the pigging radio. Except.…….oddly enough they had some pretty nifty writers who wrote for radio. Enter Seneca (that’s The Younger to you and me), and his impressive array of radio plays from Trojan Women, to Oedipus, to Medea. He also wrote a whole heap of “Dialogues”, which were essentially holding forth on philosophical ideas, him being a Roman Philosophical Stoic and all. So why are these radio plays? Well partly to do with Seneca’s insistence on being a ‘stoic’ – not quite as reprehensible two thousand years ago, but still fairly dull. Far from the delights of Euripides, Seneca’s ‘plays’ were observations, and sonic landscapes, and refusniks to the theatre-cause. There was nothing to physically perform in Seneca’s writing, except for the writing of course. In the Latin, his plays are giant poems, lyrical bouncy-castles that seem to desire no visual elucidation. The other reason they’re radio plays is, (and here I get smug), ‘cos he bloodywell said they were, insisting that they were only ever performed by readers as sound plays, and not by actors as stage plays.

If you google various combinations of the words ‘stage, play, radio, performance’, you get everything from ‘how to write a radio play” to lyrics for R.E.M’s “Radio Song” in the results.  You might even trawl around for long enough to discover that Radio Four co-produced a radio-feature film in collaboration with The Arts Council and Film London, for the Imax in 2007 (incidentally, you’ll also discover that back in 2007 the IMAX was still subtitled as “London’s 3-D cinema”). What you won’t find however is anything obvious linking Seneca and H.G.Wells; tried it, failed, soz. However with a little digging I found out that Seneca had opinions about the radio such as “[I forsee that the radio will be] a punishment to some, to some a gift, and to many a favour”, espousing that when he was writing his radio plays it was “a happy age, before the days of architects, before the days of builders, before the days of technicians and the annoying HMV dog”.  And you will no doubt come across Herb coming back on Lucius: “adapt or perish [old man]”, and my particular favourite between the two esteemed writers  “[listen Seneca, I beat you fair and square and I told you] the uglier a man's legs are, the better he plays golf - it's almost a law [so take your effete Roman legs and go back to your radio plays]”. See, there are things that even Monty Python didn’t teach you, The Romans invented Golf, and Wells’s Time Machine was a collaboration between him and Seneca, they came up with it round about the ninth hole.

Look the point is that all radio is performance, especially the least expected bits, like the news and stuff. It is a kind of theatre, except we, the audience, are always in control; we can turn it on and off whenever we like. We just need to be careful that when we choose to turn on, something truly terrifying and magnificent isn’t happening, else we might just believe it. All.

For me the radio is the beginning of all things, and the end of all things: my day; my association with the world; my understanding of words and language; my enjoyment of music; my pleasure in the simplicity of a story. The radio is a daily performance, the world-theatre in a small, black box.

Promise me not to go silent all of a sudden.
Radio Poem, B. Brecht

Rowan Rutter
newbie | theatre editor

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