Listening Play

Sitting by the radio, minding my own business, I quite unexpectedly caught a Finnish version from the 70's of Richard Hughes's radio play Danger. I'd never heard of the play nor of the playwright.

Turned out it wasn't just any play. It was in fact a historical piece - the first radio play ever expressly written for the radio (or at least the one credited for being the first). It premiered in January 1924.

The events of the play take place in a Welsh coal mine, in the dark. What is splendidly brave is that there is no narrator. The situation explains itself, just like the events explain themselves - through dialogue and sound effects.

This is what Hughes wrote in 1956: "Those were the days of the silent film and our "listening play" (as I dubbed it) would have to be the silent film's missing half, so to speak, telling a complete story by sound alone. Yet even the silent film didn't, strictly speaking, rely on pictures only. It used subtitles. Usually there was a sad man thumping appropriate themes on a piano. Some of the grander cinemahouses even employed an " effects man "; he wound a windmachine and pattered peas on a drum for the storm scenes; he accompanied the galloping cowboy with clashing coconut shells. We thought of using a narrator but agreed it would be a confession of failure. No, we must rely on dramatic speech and sounds entirely ... and it had never been done before."

I'm inordinately fond of the idea of the radio play as the silent film's missing half or perhaps complementary piece. There's something truly innovative and bold, conceptually, in this. And there's a delightful symmetry in the idea - the radio play as the silent movie's mirror image. All is, Alice-like, reverse and opposite, topsy-turvy.

In the one it's the eye, in the other the ear. But the silent film cheats, unlike the radio play.

This is how Danger (originally called A Comedy of Danger) begins:
Lights out. An Announcer tells the audience that the scene is a coal-mine.
MARY: (sharply) Hello! What's happened?
JACK: The lights have gone out!
MARY: Where are you?
JACK: Here.
(Pause. Steps stumbling.)
MARY: Where? I can't find you.
JACK: Here. I'm holding my hand out.
MARY: I can't find it.
JACK: Why, here!
MARY: (startled) Oh! What's that?
JACK: It's all right: it's only me.
MARY: You did frighten me, touching me suddenly like that in the dark. I'd no idea you were so close.
JACK: Catch hold of my hand. Whatever happens, we mustn't lose each other.
MARY: That's better. - But the lights! Why have they gone out?
JACK: I don't know. I suppose something has gone wrong with the dynamo. They'll turn them up again in a minute.
MARY: Oh, Jack I hate the dark!
JACK: Cheer up, darling! It'll be all right in a minute or two.
MARY: It's so frightfully dark down here.
JACK: No wonder! There must be nearly a thousand feet between us and the daylight. It's not surprising it's a bit dusky!
MARY: I didn't know there could be such utter blackness as this, ever. It's so dark, it's as if there never was such a thing as light anywhere. Oh, Jack, it's like being blind!

While Danger is neither a particularly exciting nor deep piece, it is pivotal in its avoidance of that old and tired and hackneyed device: the dreaded narrator, and therefore a pure and unblemished radio drama. The first of its kind.

And most importantly it's a silent movie - made for the radio.

The slightly awkward name Hughes coined for the radio play "listening play" never caught on. Small wonder. But it is exactly what we call a radio play in Swedish: hörspel. Probably a coincidence but still quite intriguing.


Fantastix said...

In german it´s Hörspiel.
I love listening to these Listening Plays. For a few years back my wife and I used to lay in the bed listening to these plays. They were more frequent then. Now it´s downloadning that counts and Ipods.

Is not these podiobooks or books read by the author somekind of Listening Play. Would be fun listening to books like a Listening play where the dialoque is performed by actors. (and with images) DOOOH!

I read the text and started to think about Paoul Ernst short story The Microsopic Giants. The story was published in Alfred Hitchcock berättar skräckrysare om Monster.

PS said...

For me I always, deep down, think of summers of my childhood at the summer cottage when I think of the radio plays that really had an impact. No electricity, just candles and "stormlyktor" (whatever that's in English) and being in bed listening to a particularly riveting mystery on the radio, preferably a serial. Those were the days, nothing quite lives up to the early radio plays one was subjected to.

I do love audio books and podcasts, they're simply splendid, but I much prefer audio dramas

(Obs: Danger dvs. Vaarassa är fortfarande tre dagar på Arenan.)

I don't know the Ernst story, sounds interesting, must seek it out.