The Birth of Radio Drama

English novelist and dramatist, RICHARD HUGHES is best known for the fiendish children in his widely read book, THE INNOCENT VOYAGE. But at the outset of his career, when he was fresh from Oxford, he had designs on the theater, and he was urged by Nigel Playfair to write for BBC what he believes to be the first radio play in the world. Incidentally, it is still being produced.


THE Birth of Radio Drama, as a title, suggests a solemn, formal occasion. But things were very casual in the early days of “listening in to the wireless,” and this historic birthday—January 15, 1924 — was no exception.

In those days the program department of the BBC was virtually a one-man affair, and the director of programs himself filled in time as “Uncle Caractacus” in the children’s hour. I can’t recall the date I first “spoke on the wireless” myself but I think it was during the winter of 1922-1923; at any rate I had never even seen a radio receiving set at the time and only half believed in them. I was shown into a large empty room like something in Sartre and told to talk to nobody at all, and I found it hard to believe the whole thing was not a huge practical joke on me.

Regular entertainment broadcasting was first rendered possible by wartime developments in radio-telephony between 1914 and 1918. But until 1922 it was still at the experimental stage — homemade crystal sets, and listeners too excited by hearing anything at all to care what they heard. It was not till early in 1922 that the first regular scheduled programs began to be broadcast in Britain, for half an hour a week. The first broadcast concert came in July that year; in August the first London station, 2LO, was established on the roof of Marconi House; and in November the “British Broadcasting Company” came into official being as a program-transmitting monopoly.

During the next twelve months broadcasting developed rapidly — in Britain, on the Continent, and in the U.S.A. — especially on the musical side. The BBC’s very successful transmission in January, 1923, of Mozart’s Magic Flute from the Covent Garden Opera House was a landmark. Other operas followed: it was natural that music should take the lead, for its performance required little or no adaptation to the new medium, and in the case of opera many music lovers found it an actual advantage not to have to see their voluminous divas as well as hear them. But the spoken word, in those days, was still confined to the news bulletin and the cozy “talk.” It was some time before it occurred to anyone that here was an opportunity for a new literary form altogether— something deriving from the stage play but differing from it as widely as the silent film did. When that time came, it came more or less by accident.

I don’t mean that early program authorities were blind to the possibility of dramatic performances other than opera being broadcast; only that they did not at first think beyond adaptation — a mere sort of keyhole listening, eavesdropping, at the theater. Indeed in the winter of 1922-1923 the BBC invited Nigel Playfair to undertake a dramatic entertainment of just this kind. Nigel Playfair was at that time perhaps the most famous theatrical director in London; he had built up the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, out of nothing, and his revolutionary production of The Beggar’s Opera had just ended a four-year run there. An innovator, but steeped in the classical tradition, with a flair for popularity: surely just the man to make a successful three-point landing on such an occasion.

It was to take place on January 15, 1924. Playfair began to make up his bill. He decided on some of Vachel Lindsay’s chanted poetry; one of A. P. Herbert’s humorous dialogues, read in parts; the proposal scene from Pride and Prejudice, also read in parts. The program was to last two hours and a fourth item was needed.

That fourth item was still to be found on Friday. January 11, four days before the broadcast was to take place. It so happened that I was dining with Playfair that night. Hospitably he had offered his theater for a brief London appearance to a small company of Welsh players I was interested in (I was twenty-three at the time, and this was my first and last experience as an actor-manager). So we met to discuss the forthcoming visit, but somehow soon got to talking about this new business of broadcasting, and he told me his program for Tuesday was still undecided. “Broadcasting is a new kind of entertainment altogether,” he said. “Really what it wants is new stuff — stuff specially written for it.”

I had come to that conclusion myself already and inwardly wished I had had this chance.

As if Playfair read my thoughts, he cocked his eye at me and said, “Pity I didn’t think of it in time to get you to write something! But I’ve promised to give them the final program tomorrow. Casts to engage and so on.”

But was it too late, after all? In those days my mind was a ferment of themes for plays, and I was fired with the possibilities of the radio form. The loss of a night’s sleep wouldn’t worry me. Without hesitation I undertook to write a new play to be delivered next day at Playfair’s breakfast table.

That settled, we talked around the project for a while. Sounds — how they are even more distinctive than sights: a teaspoon on a saucer, kicking a football, tearing paper, opening a bottle — the ear recognizes them instantly without any help from the eye. Moreover, what a much less jaded organ emotionally the ear is than the eye!

There would be special difficulties. Seemingly we were attempting no more, in essaying to stir the emotions and tell a complete story through a single organ, the ear, than what the cinema already did through the eye. But in practice no film — even the silent film of those days —relied on visual pictures alone; for subtitles are really disguised sound. Moreover, movie houses in those days generally kept a sad musician thumping themes emotionally appropriate on a piano throughout the performance. Some of the grander ones even employed an “effects man” who wound a wind machine in the storm scenes and accompanied the galloping cowboy with clashing coconut shells. We could have no auxiliary recourse to a second sense, no equivalent of subtitles — for we agreed that to use a narrator would be a confession of failure. Our “listening play” must rely on dramatic speech and sound entirely.

It had never been done before; that was the especial rub, for it meant we had a totally inexperienced audience to deal with. We were plunging them into a blind man’s world. No doubt in time they would get used to it and come to accept its conventions, but how would they react this first time they were suddenly struck blind? We agreed that, this once at any rate, something must be done to make it easier for them. A story for example which really happens in the dark, so that the characters themselves keep complaining they can’t see. Then perhaps the announcer could ask the audience to put out their lights and listen in darkness, too, so as to feel themselves in the very middle of the action they were hearing.

“Here’s a first speech for you,” said Playfair as he escorted me to the door: “ The lights have gone out!”

Back in my attic flat in New Oxford Street I turned over possible situations in my mind. The lights have gone out! Not a bedroom scene. To be candid, I did not know much about bedrooms, even at twenty-three. An accident in a coal mine?

I knew nothing about coal mines either, and there was no time to find out. But technically the theme seemed to offer the sort of things I wanted: sudden total darkness, the dramatic sounds of explosions and rushing water, the picks of a rescue team. But wouldn’t miners’ voices, if the characters were all miners, be too difficult to tell apart? A party of visitors, then, lost in the mine? An old man, a young man, a girl?

I wrote all night and delivered the play (which I called A Comedy of Danger) as I had promised.

A FEW hours later it was in rehearsal, and our real troubles began. Rashly, I had made great play in my script with sound effects, without seriously considering how these were to be produced. It was all very well to talk glibly at the dinner table about sounds, but producing them convincingly in the studio was a different kettle of fish. Someone ran round the corner and enlisted the “effects man” from a cinema in the Strand, wind machine and all, but still we could make nothing sound as it was meant to sound even in the studio. We had not taken into account the primitive transmission of those days that, as we soon discovered, reduced all sounds — tinkle of teaspoon, clash of swords, footsteps, the roar of Niagara — to a single indistinguishable wump.

Not even the voices sounded right. The studio of those days was a vast padded cell designed to make all voices sound as if they were floating in outer space; how were we to make these sound like people cramped together in an underground flooded tunnel? There was as yet no artificial echo to be had by twiddling a knob. So Playfair decreed that his whole cast must orate with their handsome heads in buckets.

The script called for occasional “distant snatches of hymn singing” from entombed Welsh miners. In those days unemployed Welsh miners were singing in the London streets lor coppers; it was easy enough to engage a choir. They sang beautifully and with passion, but once started nothing could stop them. How could their performance be reduced to “snatches,” with only one studio and one microphone? Playfair stationed them to sing in the corridor, outside a soundproof door he could open and shut at will.

The climax came when we told the engineers we wanted an explosion. They answered that if we so much as popped a paper bag near the microphone it would blow every fuse in Savoy Hill. In my innocence I had counted on a terrific roar and rumble of falling rock that would batter on the ears, but Shakespeare’s roaring of a sucking dove would be a deafening sound compared with all the “explosion” they were prepared to allow us.

The press was treating this as an important occasion. Reporters and critics were to assemble and listen in the building, in a room specially equipped for them. On their verdict, we felt, the whole future of this infant art might depend. Even if the public must hear only a diminutive wump, the press (Playfair decreed) must hear something better. So he secretly arranged for a magnificent, catastrophic explosion in the room next door to them. They thought it came to them with the rest of the play through the loudspeaker; in fact they heard it through the wall.

Thus, then, did radio drama emit its first faint infant wail.

A few months later, finding myself in New York, I tried to interest American radio authorities in the newborn child. Their response is curious when you consider how very popular radio plays were later to become in the States. They stood me good luncheons; they listened politely; but then they rejected the whole idea. That sort of thing might be possible in England, they explained, where broadcasting was a monopoly and a few crackpot highbrows in the racket could impose what they liked on a suffering public. But the American setup was different: it was competitive, so it had to be popular, and it stood to reason that plays you couldn’t see could never be popular. Yet it was not very long before these specially written “blind” plays (my own Comedy of Danger among them) began to be heard in America, and on the European continent as well. A Comedy of Danger moreover soon began to find a use for which it had never been intended: it was obviously impossible to give it in a theater, but it became surprisingly popular with amateur companies on both sides of the Atlantic. For it was a godsend for them at last to find a play which needed no scenery, no costumes; all you had to do for a setting was put out the lights. It did not even need a stage: in total darkness it could be acted in any living room.

I HAVE gone on to this day writing radio scripts of all kinds, though only occasionally and never (I must confess) quite wholeheartedly. Deterrents have been at work, but not things inherent in the medium, only accidental, remediable things. They can all be summed up in one word: time.

Radio drama needs more time than it has ever been allotted if it is to grow to its potential stature. More time, first, for writing: harbingers, perhaps, but not masterpieces can be written in a single night. I know of only one radio play which does approach classic level; the gestation of Under Milk Wood took thirteen years, from that night in 1939 when it was first conceived. Time in this case means money: money to live on.

More time is needed, too, for production. No theatrical producer would dare to put a production on the boards in the state most productions go on the air; his cast would still be reading their parts round a table. It takes weeks of work, not days, to extract the full savor of serious dramatic writing. How can a writer be expected to write in depth when he knows that producer and cast will have no time to do more than skim his surface?

What are the remedies, then, considering that the resources both of time and money are limited? There need be no further call on those resources if only radio plays were performed more often, as stage plays are performed and books printed, so that what is great has time to be sifted from the ephemeral. There should be a regular policy of repetition and revival, so that the better plays have a chance to rise to the top. Fewer new plays and more repetition of old ones would mean more adequate rewards for the efforts of those writers whose plays deserve repetition, more time for the producer to do his work properly, and more incentive too.

Sound radio has shown sufficient vigor to survive its first crisis, the coming of television. But if there is now to be any development in sound radio comparable with the development of the Elizabethan theater, then I think the program authorities themselves will have to play their part. There is much for them to ponder; there are new policies to be formed: they will have to begin to take radio drama seriously. Only then can we hope that someday the true birthday of radio drama will be dated not January 15, 1924 — the night of the first broadcast of A Comedy of Danger — but a night thirty years later: January 25, 1954, the first broadcast of Under Milk Wood.