“A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine”: so begins “Company” by Samuel Beckett, who, having by the mid-1970s written for radio for over twenty years, could draw from the conditions of radio his image of solipsistic seclusion in disembodied consciousness. By the time the BBC first commissioned Beckett in the mid-1950s, it had become a leading broadcaster of the work of important contemporary writers, including David Jones and T. S. Eliot. From the fascinating essays in Broadcasting in the Modernist Era one learns how slowly the BBC had arrived at this role. Like other European state broadcasters, until the postwar period the BBC was determined to retard modernism rather than sponsor it, even as the very medium of radio embodied it.
The wireless was quickly hailed by the Futurists (Filippo Marinetti’s “immaginazione senza fili”), the cubists (Robert Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower is foremost a vibrant radio transmitter), and the constructivists (Vladimir Tatlin’s projected Monument to the Third International was to contain broadcasting studios). Yet, though first diffused most densely in the United Kingdom, broadcasting, as the volume’s illuminating essays confirm, was throughout the era a closely guarded instrument of conservative social and political retrenchment. On British airwaves, there was little modernism in the modernist era.
Virginia Woolf was invited to descant lightly on Beau Brummell, the publishing industry, and “craftsmanship”—not to fulminate against political reaction and sexism, much less to recite from novels (e.g. The Waves) that, as Randi Koppen notes, complement the dynamics of radio itself. She did not go back to the studios a fourth time.
T. S. Eliot went into the broadcast studios over a hundred times, but these transmissions were the result less of an uncertain self-questioning rhetoric, as Steven Matthews emphasizes [End Page 839] in his essay, than of Eliot’s evangelical commitment to a conservative, royalist, Anglican agenda. Although The Waste Land is radio (“He do the police in different voices,” read the original title), the BBC did not broadcast it. Matthews discerns in T. S. Eliot’s radio appearances not a tone-deaf, conservative dogmatic but “qualities of self-attentiveness—including self-hearing—within a discourse” (97) and suggests that at the BBC Eliot grasped that “voice determines a writer’s distinctiveness” (109). Yet The Waste Land, published seven years before the poet began broadcasting, is incomparably more concerned with capturing the voice than anything, including his plays written during the decades he spent working with the BBC.
David Jones’s work was first adapted for radio after the war, and for all its ideogrammatic modernist method, his poems were also civic, national, royalist, and Christian and thus firmly within the remit of the BBC. In a fascinating essay, Erik Tonning notes that BBC editors zealously courted the poet, who long declined commissions until submitting an unsolicited talk inspired by the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II, “Wales and the Crown.” Jones permitted himself only a wary “limited” involvement (126) on the epochal adaptations of his masterpieces In Parenthesis (in which Dylan Thomas was cast) and The Anathemata. Despite their success, he harbored reservations about the broadcasts, and Tonning cites draft letters in which Jones decries “histrionics and exaggerated emphases” and the use of dramatic parts rather than a single narrative voice (124).
E. M. Forster was a regular cultural commentator who discoursed harmlessly on railway bridges, literary anniversaries, etc. The BBC was the very last place where the self-censoring author of Maurice would have betrayed his deeply personal indignation at the criminal persecution of homosexuals in Great Britain. Peter Fifield illuminates Forster’s thirty-five-year association with the BBC in terms of his retirement from fiction and his uneasy emergence as a public intellectual. He discerns in the radio scripts “an imaginative construction of a listenership combined with a deconstruction of authoritative statement, so that we can hear Forster demonstrating the exceptional insightful work of the novelist, but also enacting its repeated abandonment in favour of being simply one of the mass” (62...