Radio Drama Is Theater of the Mind's Eye

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TRUE radio fans won't let you mention their cherished medium in the same breath with TV.

I once said something about the ``similarities'' of the two forms to Garrison Keillor when we were chatting some years ago. He gave me a puzzled look, as if he couldn't fathom how anyone could see a connection. ``They both have audio,'' he conceded, but beyond that....''

Keillor may have been a little partial. After all, he was host of radio's ``A Prairie Home Companion'' and remains one of today's few real radio artists. But his comment made a point: In an age dominated by the visual media, it's important to help radio preserve its special identity. Keillor was reminding me what happens when you hear creative radio - how different it is from TV or films.

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For one thing, the pictures are better on radio, as more than one film buff has said. The most dedicated radio fans I can recall were a couple in Canada who wouldn't watch the tube for any reason. They told me they'd rather listen to a sports event on radio than see it on TV. Their rationale had something to do with the misleading nature of TV coverage, where you think you're seeing the action but are really getting a view distorted by camera angles and other false impressions. Radio, they felt, lets you

do the visualizing.

Radio frees your imagination, while TV tends to manipulate it. Radio is the theater of the mind's eye, a place where your own envisioning starts where the words and sound leave off. Some of our best writers have recognized this, including Samuel Beckett, whose drama ``All That Fall'' aired on American Public Radio in 1986 in a superb production. When Beckett wrote the play in 1956, he had said it was designed for radio, and he meant it. No less than Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright once asked to perfo rm in it on stage, but Beckett refused. He intended no offense to those brilliant actors, but this wasn't a generic drama to him, it was a radio drama. Its effect, as Beckett put it, depended ``on the whole thing's coming out of the dark.''

The best recent example of drama coming out of the dark is a six-part series called ``Craven Street,'' now beginning to be aired on public radio stations (check local listings). Written, directed, and produced by the award-winning radio dramatist Yuri Rasovsky, it's the carefully researched story of Ben Franklin's years as a colonial agent in London, a period somewhat neglected in the public mind but full of fascinating data.

The show takes advantage of these historical riches with compelling results, as it dogs the footsteps of the great man from 1770 to 1775. As Franklin, George Grizard employs a kind of transatlantic accent that combines the pragmatic and elegant, giving us a wise, wily, funny, patriotic diplomat who makes a rhetorical and intellectual game of matching wits with the snooty British officials he deals with (although he ends up in very hot water).

In 1987, a radio series called ``Dateline 1787'' dealt with the same period of history, using the old production trick of ``sending'' a 20th-century news team into the past, in this case to 18th-century Philadelphia to report on delegates' efforts to reform the Articles of Confederation. ``Craven Street'' uses a more original device: To elicit comments from Franklin, it supplies a ``conscience,'' played effectively by Elizabeth Montgomery, who narrates the action and asks Franklin leading questions.

But what brings this all to life is a soundtrack that mixes noises, music, narrative, snatches of dialogue, and other effects to conjure up a panorama of London life in your mind that no amount of visual detailing on TV could have achieved. And even in conversations, the program's suggestive qualities are at work.

At one point, Franklin is having an argument with Lord Hillsborough over the former's appointment as agent for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their individual emotions reflect the public issue, with plenty of room for mental expansion by individual listeners.

Who do these upstart colonists think they are? Hillsborough's indignant voice seems to say. You can hear the revolution brewing in his haughty British tones and in Franklin's icy, sardonic, barely deferential voice, quivering at the brink of revolt. Right in that room you can grasp the passions that ultimately will lead to Lexington and Concord.

I don't think TV could have shown all that in such a short time. Viewers would have been too busy looking at the costumes, surveying the room, watching the actors' faces - instead of painting their own pictures.

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