Radio Dans

Friday, December 15, 2006

Radio drama

Early years
English language radio drama as a whole seems to have started in the United States. "A Rural Line on Education," a brief sketch specifically written for radio, aired on Pittsburgh's KDKA in 1921, according to historian Bill Jaker. Newspaper accounts of the era report on a number of other drama experiments by America's commercial radio stations: KYW broadcast a season of complete operas from Chicago starting in November 1921. In February 1922, entire Broadway musical comedies with the original casts aired from WJZ's Newark studios. Actors Grace George and Herbert Hayes performed an entire play from a San Francisco station in the summer of 1922.

An important turning point in radio drama came when Schenectady, New York's WGY, after a successful tryout on August 3, 1922, began weekly studio broadcasts of full-length stage plays in September 1922, using music, sound effects and a regular troupe of actors, The WGY Players. Aware of this series, the director of Cincinnati's WLW began regularly broadcasting one-acts (as well as longer works) in November. The success of these projects led to imitators at other stations. By the spring of 1923, original dramatic pieces written especially for radio were airing on stations in Cincinnati (When Love Wakens by WLW's Fred Smith), Philadelphia (The Secret Wave by Clyde A. Criswell) and Los Angeles (At Home over KHJ). By 1923, WLW (in May) and WGY (in September) sponsored scripting contests, inviting listeners to create original plays to be performed by those stations' dramatic troupes.

Listings in the New York Times and other sources for May 1923 reveal at least 20 dramatic offerings were scheduled (including one-acts, excerpts from longer dramas, complete three- and four-act plays, operettas and a MoliƩre adaptation), either as in-studio productions or by remote broadcast from local theaters and opera houses.

Serious study of American radio drama of the 1920s and early 1930s is, at best, very limited. Unsung pioneers of the art include: WLW's Fred Smith; Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (who popularized the dramatic serial); The Eveready Hour creative team which experimented with combinations of one-act plays and music on its weekly variety program; the various troupes of radio players at stations like WLW, WGY, KGO and a number of others, frequently run by women like Helen Schuster Martin and Wilda Wilson Church; early network continuity writers like Henry Fisk Carlton, William Ford Manley and Don Clark; producers and directors like Clarence Menser and Gerald Stopp; and a long list of others who were credited at the time with any number of innovations but who are largely forgotten or undiscussed today. Elizabeth McLeod's recent book on Gosden and Correll's early work is a major exception, as is Richard J. Hand's 2006 study of horror radio, which examines some programs from the early 1930s.

Another notable early radio drama, one of the first in the UK, was Danger by Richard Hughes, broadcast by the BBC on January 15, 1924.

In 1951, writer and producer Arch Oboler suggested that Wyllis Cooper's Lights Out (1934-47) was the first true radio drama to make use of the unique qualities of radio:

Radio drama (as distinguished from theatre plays boiled down to kilocycle size) began at midnight, in the middle thirties, on one of the upper floors of Chicago's Merchandise Mart. The pappy was a rotund writer by the name of Wyllis Cooper. [1]
Though often remembered solely for its gruesome stories and sound effects, Cooper's scripts for Lights Out were well-written and offered innovations seldom heard in early radio dramas, including stream of consciousness monologues and scripts that contrasted a duplicitious character's internal monologue and his spoken words.

However, the question of who was the first to write stream-of-consciousness drama for radio is a difficult one to answer. A 1940 article in Variety credited a 1932 NBC play, Drink Deep by Don Johnson, as the first stream-of-consciousness play written for American radio. The climax of Lawrence Holcomb's 1931 NBC play Skyscraper also uses a variation on the technique (so that we can hear the final thoughts and relive the memories of a man falling to his death from the title building). But Tyrone Guthrie had already written plays like Matrimonial News (which consists entirely of the thoughts of a shopgirl awaiting a blind date) and The Flowers Are Not for You to Pick (which takes place inside the mind of a drowning man) for the BBC by 1930, and he may have been emulating the work of previous British authors (perhaps the 1927 Shadows, for example). After they were published in 1931, Guthrie's plays aired on the American networks. Around the same time, Guthrie himself also worked for the Canadian National Railway radio network, producing plays written by Merrill Denison that used similar techniques.

Presumably, Wyllis Cooper, who was something of an Anglophile and who had contact with BBC veterans (like Fred Ibbett with whom he worked on NBC's Empire Builders series), was aware of what the British were doing and applied their ideas to his own work on commercial dramas, thus influencing Oboler and others. Aspects of Cooper's style can be found in Guthrie's work, for example. The climactic audio montage in Guthrie's Flowers is similar to the one in Cooper's "In the House Where I Was Born" from Quiet, Please -- both plays mingle lines of dialogue from earlier scenes for a powerful impressionistic effect.

There were probably earlier examples of stream-of-consciousness drama on the radio. For example, in December 1924, actor Paul Robeson, then appearing in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones," performed a scene from the play over New York's WGBS to critical acclaim. Some of the many storytellers and monologists on early 1920s American radio might be able to claim even earlier dates.