After I posted on Saturday my friend Joseph Caro over on Facebook asked me:
“Could you discuss why radio plays aren’t just an anomaly or transitional form? I have an impression that they are unique to human history, they seemed to occupy a short time-span when we had the time ability to transmit audio but not video.”
Let’s think about this question by first considering this short visual history of drama:
Drama is born in Greece as part of the religious festival honoring the god Dionysos.
By Shakespeare’s day (1564-1616) the theater has become secular entertainment (though not divorced from a broadly classical-medieval understanding of human beings and their place in the cosmos).
Technology in the late 19th c. helps create drama through the moving image projected onto a screen.
Technology in the 20th c. brings drama into the home via radio waves.
Later technology in the 20th c. brings visual drama into the home via television.
So is the radio play merely transitional, like the ancient Greek dithyramb? (Who remembers the dithyramb?)
I don’t think radio drama is going to go the way of the dithyramb, and that is because the intimacy and creative participation involved with radio/audio drama will always be attractive to us. Television and film are exciting but more passive media. The vocal quality of the radio/audio play–which makes it seem as though the characters are right in the room with us–creates a special brand of intimacy, and the fact that radio/audio comes without visual images compels our imaginations to take up the exciting task of supplying images on its own. That is a special blend that I don’t believe human beings are going to completely tire of, though I admit that the radio/play will probably forever remain less popular than film and television.
I follow Aristotle in considering what he called “tragedy” to be the highest of human art forms. And among contemporary forms of drama, I believe the live stage performance to be the most perfect expression of drama, with film, television, radio/audio drama, puppet shows, and pantomimes being declensions from this standard.
The images above are reproduced courtesy of, in descending order, Jorge Lascar, Alistair Young, Wikimedia Commons, Jamiecat, and Alan_D. All but the Wikimedia Commons image are reproduced under the following license.