Plays

Abortive

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Caryl Churchill's Abortive is a short radio play first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 4 February 1971.

Roz and Colin are having a difficult time with sex, largely because of an invisible yet forbidding barrier between them. Roz became pregnant after being raped and had an abortion. Roz is not sure she made the right decision and Colin is not altogether convinced his wife was raped.

The BBC Radio 3 production was directed by John Tydeman, with Prunella Scales as Roz and Dinsdale Landen as Colin.

Barnes’ People: Eight Monologues

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Barnes’ People is a series of wonderfully varied monologues from deeply imagined individuals. Whether their stories are historical, fantastic or familiar, they are always intimate and human.

‘Confessions of a Primary Terrestrial Mental Receiver and Communicator: Num III Mark I’ is spoken by a man who finds a meaning for his life through covert correspondence with aliens.

‘The Jumping Mimuses of Byzantium’, spoken by an aged hermit, is based on a legend of a tumbling jester and a wanton prostitute with a nocturnal secret.

‘The Theory and Practise of Belly-Dancing’ is about finding a way to survive the everyday.

‘The End of the World – And After’ is spoken by William Miller, a preacher who amassed a large following by predicting that Christ’s Second Coming would occur in 1844.

A one-hundred-and-thirteen year old woman tells an interviewer about her calmly scurrilous life in ‘Yesterday’s News’.

‘Glory’ is the final oration of Peregrinus Proteus, an Ancient Greek philosopher famous for parricide, before he steps on to his own funeral pyre.

In ‘No End to Dreaming’, an old man tells his psychoanalyst about growing up in the Cracow ghetto and about his dreams.

The monologues were presented by BBC Radio 3 in 1981.

Existence

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A dark night in a neglected city suburb. An unnamed man breaks into a flat, scrambling for something to steal. As he rifles through the flat, he finds that there is nothing worth stealing, that vandalism proves unsatisying and that attacking the flat’s occupant, Tom, a mute, too brings only further questions. The burglar is led ultimately to question his own existence, regusing any answers that the mute Tom might offer: all responses lead only to one inevitable outcome.

Existence was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 8 April 2002 in a production featuring Jason Flemyng and Andrew Wincott. The first staged production took place at the Théâtre-Studio Alfortville, Paris, on 28 October 2002.

Family Voices

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Family Voices was first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in January 1981 and subsequenly presented in a 'platform performance' formed in by the National Theatre, London, in February of the same year.

Family Voices

Grove Atlantic
Type: Text

Family Voices was first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in January 1981 and subsequenly presented in a 'platform performance' formed in by the National Theatre, London, in February of the same year.

Five Kinds of Silence

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Harrowing and claustrophobic, Five Kinds of Silence describes the sickening abuse inflicted by a father upon his wife and daughters.

Janet and Susan have just shot Billy, their father. The appalling grip he has on their lives means that they can’t quite believe that he is dead, and his ghost haunts the stage spitting sharp poetry and insults and dark delight. Billy’s commentary on his past shows how a pattern of childhood abuse led to him abusing his own family, creating a psychological prison which none of them can escape from. As psychiatrists and detectives interview the sisters and their mother in order to build a case for their defence, they reveal the absolute totality of Billy’s control, punishing the slightest deviation from his exacting household rules with brutal violence and enforcing secrecy with threats of murder and suicide. The play explores the impossible complexity of the feelings of these three women towards Billy, deeply damaged by their life-long suffering.

Adapted from a radio play, the stage version of Five Kinds of Silence was first performed in 2000, at the Lyric Hammersmith, London.

In the Ruins

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Windsor Castle, 1817. King George III contemplates his life, drawing on his personal past as well as momentous political and historical events over the course of his reign. An almost uninterrupted monologue of digressive musings, In the Ruins unpicks the psychological reality of the Mad King.

Nick Dear’s In the Ruins was first broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in June 1984.

The Look Across The Eyes

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Cardiff East 'As scene melts into scene, one’s appetite for knowing more and more about these people is constantly whetted, even for the ones one would avoid in real life. Each and every [character] rings true and resonates further. A play which is never less than gripping.' Mail on Sunday

Certain Young Men 'The play is marked by a fast turnover of scenes, lots of brusque, vivid, wryly funny dialogue . articulate, arresting and as freshly performed as anything in town.' The Times

The York Realist: Winner of the London Critics' Circle Award for Best New Play

'As a love story, The York Realist is riveting and heart-rending, performed with fine-tuned naturalism that's quiet and unhurried. Gill is always terrifically perceptive about male tenderness. Overall, the personal and political are subtly united in a study of English masculinity, class and culture. Such outstanding work.' Independent on Sunday

Original Sin 'Hauntingly powerful.' Guardian

Lovely Evening

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Cardiff East 'As scene melts into scene, one’s appetite for knowing more and more about these people is constantly whetted, even for the ones one would avoid in real life. Each and every [character] rings true and resonates further. A play which is never less than gripping.' Mail on Sunday

Certain Young Men 'The play is marked by a fast turnover of scenes, lots of brusque, vivid, wryly funny dialogue . articulate, arresting and as freshly performed as anything in town.' The Times

The York Realist: Winner of the London Critics' Circle Award for Best New Play

'As a love story, The York Realist is riveting and heart-rending, performed with fine-tuned naturalism that's quiet and unhurried. Gill is always terrifically perceptive about male tenderness. Overall, the personal and political are subtly united in a study of English masculinity, class and culture. Such outstanding work.' Independent on Sunday

Original Sin 'Hauntingly powerful.' Guardian

Master Olof

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Olof Persson was a Swedish clergyman whose contribution to the Protestant Reformation in Sweden forms the subject of this, August Strindberg's first major play. In Master Olof - which Strindberg would revise many times over the years - we witness Persson's series of rebellions, first against the established Church, then against the king, Gustav, with whom he had previously sided, and finally, against the expectations of heroic martyrdom, a fate he eschews in favour of living on to spread the word of Lutheranism.

In his introduction, translator Michael Meyer writes: 'Master Olof is arguably as astounding a play as was ever written by a dramatist of 23 . . . vividly characterized, sharply written and told in a series of swift and powerful scenes rising to a superb climax'.

The translation presented here was commissioned by the BBC and was first broadcast on Radio 3 on 8 January 1986.

When sound broadcasting was introduced as a public communication channel after the First World War, the purveying of drama was one of its many functions. Indeed, radio drama was to overtake the theatre in quite a few countries, in terms of both output and audience figures. By 1930 the BBC was putting on twice as many plays as the London stage. Half a century later, its annual production of new plays was somewhere in the region of 600.

Radio was the first broadcast medium to bring drama into one’s sitting room; so it is not surprising that it took some time to find its voice. It all began with a transmission by the British Broadcasting Company, on 16 February 1923, of three different scenes from Shakespeare plays. Theatre plays have figured in the radio repertoire ever since, in Britain and elsewhere. But it was soon realized that radio also needed a new kind of drama specially written for the medium. Because it lacks any visual element, radio drama has been defined as a ‘theatre for the blind’. Richard Hughes’s A Comedy of Danger, Britain’s, and perhaps the world’s, first original radio play, broadcast on 15 January 1924, exploited this aspect in a tale of people trapped in a mine shaft in total darkness. Later plays such as MacNeice The Dark Tower (1946), Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954), Pinter’s A Slight Ache (1959) and Barry Bermange’s No Quarter (1962) – to mention but a few have all used the theme of blindness. It is true that sightlessness imposes certain constraints on radio drama. Any character who fails to speak for a while vanishes from the mind’s eye. A prolonged general silence might mean the end of the programme rather than a significant pause. Too large a number of speakers may well confuse the listener. Gestural communication does not read. But the listener’s ‘blindness’ is not just a handicap. It is often said that radio drama paradoxically gives us the best pictures. It appeals to the imagination, conjures up different images in each listener’s head and thus enjoys the advantages of multivalence and fluidity. It has the greatest freedom in the handling of time and space. A purely aural medium, it gives enormous value to the actor’s vocal expressiveness, which has to convey character, intention and feeling without any facial or gestural signals. Radio drama is particularly well suited to rendering inner processes: it easily accommodates the monologue. However, to conclude from this – as some critics have done – that radio drama naturally inclines towards an absurdist view of life is itself an absurdity.

Besides the human voice, sound effects – recorded or produced on the spot, naturalistic, suggestive or symbolic – create place, action and atmosphere. Music, too, can play a role as mood setter or bridge between scenes. Actually, at certain periods in the history of radio drama, effects and music have been used to excess. With its emphasis on dialogue, radio drama is a writer’s medium. Its technology being relatively inexpensive (at least compared to film and television), it is a useful launching pad for new playwrights; John Mortimer, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard all wrote for radio in the early parts of their careers. For established playwrights, too, radio offers a stimulating challenge though only relatively modest fees. After the success of Waiting for Godot, Beckett showed his grasp of the sound medium with All that Fall (1957) and Embers (1958).

Technological change was bound to affect the nature of radio drama. The dramatic control panel, introduced in 1928, made a multi-studio technique possible; the voices of actors working from several studios with different acoustics could be modulated and combined. Concepts like ‘fades’ and ‘superimpositions’ were borrowed from the cinema. Later, filters served to modify microphone characteristics, providing such effects as telephone conversations. A major innovation pioneered in Germany and quickly adopted everywhere after the end of the Second World War was the audio tape recorder. Drama had gone out live before; now it became normal to pre-record it. In such a recording there was no longer any need to run a play through from start to finish in one go; it became possible to take individual scenes and then edit them together, just as in film-making. The highly portable tape recorder can also be taken outside to record a play, or parts of it, on location (though this is by no means universal practice).

The institutional framework of broadcasting cannot fail to have a bearing on the type of drama produced or indeed whether any drama is produced at all. In the United States, radio has been a commercial enterprise from the start. By 1927 two large networks, NBC and CBS, completely dominated the hundreds of local radio stations. As more and more programmes were commercially sponsored, it became imperative to maximize audiences. Not surprisingly, controversy and experimentation were frowned upon. Mystery and detective series were popular. But the staple fare of US radio drama was the family serial – intellectually untaxing, but involving. Because many of these were sponsored by soap manufacturers in the early days, they came to be known as soap operas. By 1938 there were as many as 38 of these on the air, aimed chiefly at women listeners housebound during the daytime. But throughout the 1930s competition between the networks produced what has hyperbolically been called the Golden Age of Radio Drama in America. It was to last barely a decade and a half. ‘Columbia Workshop’ (CBS) created a stir with MacLeish’s verse play, The Fall of the City in 1937 – a forecast of fascist aggression to come. Several series by the writer-producer Norman Corwin were the CBS drama flagship; his rival at NBC was Arch Oboler. Perhaps the most talented person in American radio drama was Orson Welles. His company was given a regular spot on CBS as ‘Mercury Theater on the Air’. When he directed H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds for Hallowe’en 1938, his reportage style of presenting a Martian invasion was so convincing that it triggered off a mass panic: people rushed off in their cars to escape instant destruction; telephone switchboards were flooded. Welles’s knowledge of radio technique rubbed off on his subsequent film work, notably Citizen Kane. With the coming of television, high-quality drama virtually disappeared from American radio.

In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, the BBC has represented public service broadcasting and has built up a solid tradition of drama. (The contribution to drama of Independent Local Radio, set up in 1973, has been negligible.) A good many BBC plays have been avowedly popular, from the detective series Dick Barton – Special Agent, which by 1947 had some 15 million listeners, to that longest-running of all family serials, The Archers. By the end of the century this rural saga was in its fifth decade and enjoyed a devoted following, many listeners believing in the characters with astonishing literal-mindedness. Relieved of the pressure of ratings, the BBC has been able to appeal to a wide spectrum of tastes, with the Third Programme (Radio 3 since 1970) explicitly featuring works with a minority appeal. Not all BBC plays have actually come out of the Drama Department. From 1933 onwards, Features rivalled it in drama output for some 30 years. Thus Christopher Columbus (1942), one of the most successful plays by the prolific poet-producer Louis MacNeice, was classed as a feature. So was Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. This investigation of a non-existent small Welsh seaside town was a work of the imagination, though in quasi-documentary guise. Feature or drama, it turned out to be probably the most acclaimed radio play of all time – repeated three times within three months of the original broadcast, transmitted overseas six times in the following year and put out again many more times in subsequent years. It quickly appeared on the market as a book and a record. When adapted for the stage, television and the cinema, it obstinately remained what Thomas had called it – a ‘play for voices’. Over the years the BBC has kept up a remarkable volume of excellent productions, with writers like Henry Reed, Giles Cooper, James Saunders, Don Howarth, Bill Naughton, Fay Weldon and a host of others supplying scripts of real quality. Television has long since cut into the audience figures of the 1940s and 1950s, but a weekday afternoon play will still draw hundreds of thousands of listeners.

Interest in radio drama has been worldwide. Italy’s commitment was demonstrated by the establishment in 1948 of the international Prix Italia for the year’s best radio play. Germany’s Radio Drama Prize of the War Blinded was set up in 1951 for the best German-language offering of the year. Radio drama has been particularly important in postwar Germany. The broadcast on NWDR of Borchert’s Draussen vor der Tür (The Man Outside, 1947) was a significant event in the country’s facing up to its recent past. The leading radio playwright of the 1950s and 1960s was the poet Günter Eich, but many other writers – Ilse Aichinger and Wolfgang Hildesheimer among them – have also contributed to radio drama. Indeed, a great many countries from the Czech Republic to Canada, from Switzerland to Japan, have all laboured to built up a vast, though unfortunately to the reader mostly inaccessible, corpus of plays for broadcasting. It is true that television has decimated the audience for radio drama. But the latter continues to be an interesting, if insufficiently regarded and remunerated, form of playwriting – different in form from, but closely affiliated to, other forms of drama and literature in general.

from George Brandt, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).