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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 338-339
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Every twenty years or so, a British radio practitioner or scholar produces a book that attempts to assert radio's rightful place as equal to that of television and/or theatre. In the late 1950s, while television rapidly gained popular appeal, the BBC's Radio Drama Department initiated a campaign to explore radio's own unique expressive potential; Donald McWhinnie's 1959 The Art of Radio continues to provide one of the most urgent and deeply felt queries into the unique artistic features of the medium itself. 1981 brought Peter Lewis's Radio Drama and John Drakakis's British Radio Drama, followed in 1996 by Andrew Crisell's Understanding Radio. Dermot Rattigan's Theatre of Sound stands as the most recent addition to this catalog. Rattigan's purpose is threefold: to continue the argument for radio's status as an equal and unique venue for dramatic performance, to redefine the medium in relation to more current theories that emphasize performance itself, and finally, to provide a model for analyzing dramatic radio performances.
In his effort to codify radio performance, Rattigan turns to two existing sources: the sonic and the musical. He feels that a radio drama, perhaps because of its fixed time frame and somewhat linear pattern, is more akin to music, requiring that a radio scholar learn to think sonically. In his efforts to produce a more sound-filled analysis, Rattigan presents textual excerpts from radio dramas, with sound effects inserted. Later, he develops a musically-inspired spatial diagram showing character movement in relation to a fixed microphone. These diagrams act in conjunction with his model for "Transcodification of textual codes through performance and production into aural codes" (9). This model, which traces the performance and production processes that a text encounters before it reaches a listening audience, shows the distinct influence of theatrical semiotic and receptions models from Pavis, Keir Elam, and Aston and Sevona. In fact, early in the book, Rattigan's discussion of sound montage seems to suggest a polysemy in the radio environment more akin to that of theatre. It seems that Rattigan's unspoken project is to assert radio's equality as a dramatic venue, despite his continued assertions that radio drama is more appropriately categorized as aural literature.
This tension between attempting to find a new critical radio language and justifying radio as a dramatic venue runs throughout the text. His transcodification model identifies radio drama's starting point as being the playwright and the dramatic text. This is odd, because most of the time, the radio listener never knows who the writer is; the experience of a radio play is often truly of the moment (Rattigan himself refers to the "one pass hearing" ), except when the play is written by a famous author such as Beckett, Stoppard, or Dylan Thomas. The result of Rattigan's model is that his work can only closely explore radio dramas available in text form, which tend to be those by famous dramatists, including Shakespeare. This leads to a question: does the book truly excavate radio's capacity as an "inclusive form of aural performance" (2) in its own right, if, in the end, it only serves to reconfirm the primacy of certain established stage dramatists?
This inconsistency is perhaps most obvious in his third section, in which Rattigan applies his analytical models to four different radio productions of King Lear. I applaud him for attempting to reveal radio's vast imaginative geography, yet his discussion sometimes unconsciously reasserts [End Page 338] radio's blindness—a handicap he would like to dispel—whenever he must acknowledge, for instance, the complexity of dealing with an unannounced entry. Furthermore, he seems unable to permit subjective interpretation of radio's unfixed signifiers. Earlier in the book, he muses over radio's ability to "whisper in our imaginations and tingle our perceptions . . ." (133), and yet, in his discussion of the musical preludes, he assigns...