Radio Drama Analysis

Orson Welles

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Just as Amos ’n’ Andy fueled the growth of popular radio, the MacLeish broadcast made serious radio drama exciting and more popular. Soon writers of note such as W. H. Auden and Stephen Vincent Benét were crafting scripts directly for the radio; later, other literary figures such as Sherwood Anderson, Maxwell Anderson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Saroyan, and Dorothy Parker would work in the medium. Welles’s next radio assignment continued the innovations. His seven-part version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862) for the Mutual Network was called by Welles a “projection” rather than an adaptation or dramatization. To prepare what may have been the first broadcast miniseries, Welles chose important selections from the novel to be read by himself as narrator or by actors performing the characters. He used sound effects and music to accompany Hugo’s prose and also played the part of Jean Valjean. The result, according to Welles’s biographer Frank Brady, was that “Welles developed the character of Jean Valjean more fully than it had been in the novel.”

With his growing experiences in radio, Welles, unlike many radio actors, by now knew the difference between reading lines in front of a microphone and sounding on the air like a real person. In such a context in which sound is the only medium for communication, to refer to the actor’s voice as an instrument risks understatement. Brady wrote that Welles would position himself before a microphone as if it were a kind of sonic mirror, and “he would seemingly be able to gesture with sound and move himself in space, creating illusions of intimacy or distance by employing only certain voice changes.”

In 1938, CBS offered Welles total artistic control of a new sustaining series to begin on July 11. The network hoped that the program would receive enough favorable attention to bring in advertisers as continuing sponsors for the hour-long show. First Person Singular, the name that was eventually chosen, would also provide another vehicle for Welles’s Mercury players, a repertory company performing in theater works that Welles and John Houseman were directing and producing. The limited budget and the weekly demands of radio (and also perhaps the satisfactions of total artistic control) kept Welles from commissioning original scripts, so he settled on the popular classics to adapt himself with the help of Houseman, Howard Koch, Richard Brooks, Abraham Polonsky, and Herman J. Mankiewicz. Their first offering was Dracula (1897), restructured from the letters-and-diary approach in which Bram Stoker had written it into a style more suited to radio. His other shows in his first season included adaptations of Treasure Island (1883; on July 18), A Tale of Two Cities (1859; July 25), The Thirty-nine Steps (1915; August 5), three short stories (August 8), Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601; August 15), and Welles’s favorite novel, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908; September 5). CBS renewed the series for the fall and renamed it Mercury Theatre on the Air .

The most famous Mercury performance came later in 1938 on Halloween Eve, when CBS broadcast an adaptation by Koch of H. G. Wells ’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898). Welles decided to tell the story of the Martian invasion in the format of a special-report newcast. His inspiration may have partly been the popular show The March of Time (1931), which dramatized actual news events in a radio studio with sound effects and a live orchestra. Such a format smudged the line between the real and the fictional and testified to the power of drama on radio. In an age before the ubiquitous camcorder gave television newscasts their immediacy, radio simply manufactured its reality, re-creating baseball games and news events as needed. The March of Time was the most popular news program on the air. In interviews years later, Welles said he also intended in the broadcast to lampoon the seriousness of radio and the way listeners passively accepted everything they heard over the airwaves.

For the man-from-Mars...

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Corwin, Oboler, and Popular Radio Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Along with Welles, Norman Corwin and Arch Oboler also stand out for their important work in creating serious radio drama. Corwin’s first series was Words Without Music (1938), which combined Corwin’s own scripts with adaptations of classics such as the poetry of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. In setting free verse for the radio, Corwin let each poem suggest the best approach, but he is particularly remembered for using choral speech effectively. Corwin’s next series, Pursuit of Happiness (1939), introduced what Corwin called a “radio opera,” a blend of music, documentary, and drama. If Welles’s gifts to radio were primarily those of the consummate actor-director, Corwin’s legacies were those of the writer. His sensitivity to language aided in his broadcasts of poetry and in imparting a lyrical dimension to his own scripts. Like Welles, Corwin was associated with The Columbia Workshop. His radio script coauthored with Lucille Fletcher, My Client Curley (1940), about a luckless theatrical agent who happens on a boy with a dancing caterpillar, became one of the classics of radio and was later made into a film. Another series, Columbia Presents Corwin (1944), continued his originality and is regarded as perhaps his best work. Some of Corwin’s memorable plots for this series include a story about a boy’s visit to heaven in search of his lost dog and a dramatization of the return of Abraham Lincoln’s body by...

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Atmospheric Techniques

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The mainstream of American radio, though utilizing the dramatic form, featured almost exclusively popular rather than serious programs. Freed from seriousness of purpose and depth of thought, these shows nevertheless reveal at times aspects of technique that showcase the medium well. The sound effects and voice characterizations of Mel Blanc, for example, greatly enhanced the comedy of Jack Benny. When Benny started up his Maxwell, Blanc’s exaggerated sputters all but gave the car a personality; when Benny opened his vault, Blanc’s creaks and groans made the comedian’s stinginess something that could be heard. Benny moved his show to television in the 1950’s, and audiences actually saw a set designer’s version of the famous vault. This reality, however, probably did not measure up to the medieval picture in the minds of listeners. Fibber McGee’s closet of junk, the clip-clop of horse-drawn hansom cabs in Sherlock Holmes’s Victorian London, and the Wild West of the Lone Ranger illustrate the power of radio serial drama to unlock the imagination.

One of the longest-running detective programs, The Shadow (1931), also used the medium well. The Shadow of the pulp magazines published during the run of the radio show was a sinister figure in black who used blazing revolvers to fight crime. The character on radio, however, was never seen. Having the power “to cloud men’s minds,” the hero seemed to appear and penetrate the psychological defenses of the criminals with his uncanny powers. In the episode titled “The White Legion,” The Shadow (performed by Welles) intimidates a secret society by exposing its members’ identities. The final scene takes place in open court, where suddenly the mysterious voice of The Shadow disrupts the proceedings and names the judge himself as the ringleader of the criminals. The series’ atmosphere catered to the imaginative powers of its audience.

John Dickinson Carr and Val Gielgud

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Another gifted writer from the flowering of radio is John Dickson Carr . Carr is mainly remembered as a detective novelist whose books employ locked-room puzzles. Because he was also a master of atmosphere and mood, his talent thrived in radio. Carr wrote mystery plays on both sides of the Atlantic, and his experiences point out some of the differences between American and British radio drama. Carr submitted his first radio play, a three-part work featuring his Chestertonian hero Dr. Gideon Fell, to Val Gielgud, the head of drama programming for the BBC. In England, Carr learned, writing took precedence over time limits and genre. Gielgud did not feel obligated to adhere to the formula conventions of mysteries or even to preset lengths of programs. In addition, he wanted the writer present at rehearsals to explain his intentions and, if necessary, to make any revisions. Contrary to the American custom, Gielgud fostered a radio drama that minimized musical bridges, clichéd “knife-chords,” and sound effects. In “The Black Minute,” Carr’s second script for the BBC, for example, a transition is accomplished by simply fading from a frightened woman’s cries to the relaxed voice of the taxi driver who had brought her moments ago to a sinister house. The contrast between the sound of her anguish and the cabdriver’s calm makes the heroine’s plight more fretful for the audience. Carr’s script also shows how sound effects, used sparingly, can assume greater...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The development of British radio plays can be traced to the broadcast of Twelfth Night on May 28, 1923. The first original work for British radio was Richard Hughes’s Danger (1924), a fifteen-minute play about three characters trapped in the pitch black of a coal mine. Reginald Denny’s The White Chanteau (1925) became the first original, full-length play on the BBC. In the 1930’s, as technology improved, more attention to original programming brought forth the experimental play by Tyrone Guthrie The Flowers Are Not for You to Pick (1930). Guthrie’s play takes place in the mind of the protagonist—a young missionary who drowns on his way to his first assignment in China—and breaks up the traditional linear plot by moving the audience via flashbacks through a number of formative moments in the hero’s life. Guthrie understood that time could be manipulated more effectively by the radio dramatist than space, something that holds true even though stereo broadcasts in later years have made space a more important dimension. The emphasis on the psychological can also be seen in Louis MacNeice ’s verse play Christopher Columbus (1944), in which different actors voice different parts (“Doubt,” “Faith”) of the hero’s mind. MacNeice’s fantasy The Dark Tower (1947) emphasizes sound effects and music more than his previous plays and is sometimes mentioned as MacNeice’s best work. Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices (pr. 1953) is Dylan Thomas ’s highly regarded radio play about small-town life in Wales. The broadcast elements of language, sound, and silence may in part explain the interest of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett in radio. Explorations of the ambiguities of communication and the richness of silence lend themselves ideally to the medium. Pinter’s radio plays A Slight Ache (pr. 1959) and A Night Out (pr. 1960) preceded his first stage success, and Beckett’s radio plays All That Fall (pr. 1957), Embers (pr. 1959), and Words and Music (pr. 1962) have taken a place in importance next to his stage works. The tradition continued. Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons (pr. 1960), appeared first on BBC radio in 1954. John Arden, Tom Stoppard, and John Mortimer also made contributions to British radio drama.

Sound Drama on Long-playing Records

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

If the term “radio drama” may be slightly altered to “sound drama,” then the development of the genre can be charted through the rise of the long-playing record and audio cassettes. One of the first stage works preserved on sound recordings was Arthur Miller ’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman. Miller had written radio plays after graduating from the University of Michigan, and his expressionistic play about Willy Loman centers on Willy’s mind and its slipping hold on reality, material well suited for sound drama. Columbia recorded the play with Thomas Mitchell as Willy; later, Caedmon Records issued a version with Lee J. Cobb as the salesperson. Eventually, technology permitted a nostalgic renaissance for radio...

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The LA Theatre Works and New Media

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the late twentieth century the efforts of designing new productions of classic and contemporary plays for audio had been largely taken over by a group called the LA Theatre Works (LATW). Having originated in 1987 and broadcasting over several radio services (such as the group’s associate producer, station KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, California, as well as National Public Radio, or NPR, and the BBC), this award-winning organization eventually assembled an audio theater collection of more than three hundred titles, reportedly the largest in the country. Their growing list of performers (Alan Alda, Annette Bening, Richard Dreyfuss, Julie Harris, Amy Irving, Nathan Lane, and Jason Robards, among others) formed an American roster as...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Callow, Simon. Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. New York: Viking Penguin, 1996. Callow writes insightfully about Welles and his work in radio and includes a list of Welles’s radio broadcasts.

Carr, John Dickson. The Door to Doom and Other Detections. Edited by Douglas G. Greene. New York: Harper and Row, 1980. Six radio plays by Carr, a bibliography of Carr’s radio scripts, and a listing of other radio scripts based on Carr’s novels.

Crook, Tim. Radio Drama. New York: Routledge, 1999. Traces the evolution of radio drama, from early broadcasts in 1914 to modern-day “media guerrilla”...

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