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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 75-116

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GBS and the BBC:
In the Beginning (1923-1928)

L. W. Conolly


Two weeks after Shaw's death, on 2 November 1950, Val Gielgud, head of drama at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), wrote a tribute to Shaw in the BBC's weekly magazine and program guide, the Radio Times. 1 Gielgud recognized Shaw's impact as a "radio personality," whose presence produced "an unforgettable effect . . . entertaining, whimsical, witty and wise," with a voice "beautiful in itself" and handled by Shaw "with the virtuosity of an accomplished musician in words and vocal tone." Shaw at the microphone "fulfilled every imaginative expectation. He spoke to the individual and not to a hypothetical mass meeting. To listen to him was a joy."

Shaw's "greatest impact" on radio listeners was not, however, Gielgud acknowledged, through his numerous talks, lectures, and debates, but through the broadcasts of his plays. Between 20 November 1924, when Shaw himself read O'Flaherty V.C., and his death, most of Shaw's plays were produced on radio and television by the BBC. 2 A short editorial piece in the Radio Times on 2 May 1930 about Shaw was headed "Greatest Radio Playwright": "G.B.S. is the ideal radio dramatist. His brilliant, strongly characterized dialogue, uncomplicated by trivial 'action,' is even more telling by way of the microphone than on the stage." A few months earlier, the same Radio Times (13 September 1929) had ranked Shakespeare as "Our Best Radio Dramatist," and a week later (20 September 1929) had also published an article by Richard Church elevating Shakespeare to the "World's [my emphasis] Greatest Radio-Dramatist." But however mixed up the Radio Times got about the respective merits of Shaw and Shakespeare as radio dramatists, they were both, from the BBC's point of view, prime assets in the new medium's early (and ongoing) efforts to attract listeners.

The BBC was free, of course, to do what it liked in Shakespearean production—and frequently did. A heavily cut Hamlet, for example, was broadcast on 22 November 1928 as Hamlet in Black and White: "The production," boasted the Radio Times (26 October 1928), will "strip from the tragedy . . . that veil with which two hundred years of mannered acting [End Page 75] have obscured it, to bring out, stark and vivid, the conflict of a neurotic mind which it was the dramatist's intent to picture. . . . Where scenes are omitted the space will be filled by a narrator, whose words will further stress the psychological aspect of the drama." Shaw, ever sensitive to his professional and legal rights, was more of a challenge, although it was not long after the first daily radio transmissions began in Great Britain in November 1922 that Shaw—the social activist as well as the playwright—began to appreciate the enormous potential of radio (and even television, although regular television transmissions did not begin in Britain until 1936). While theater managers fretted about radio drama drawing audiences away from live theater, Shaw drew attention to the advantages of home entertainment:

All I can say is that if I could see and hear a play from my fireside I would never enter a theatre again. . . . [Radio drama] is cheaper; it is more comfortable for those whose homes are at all fit to live in; it is available in town and country and can, in fact, be carried about; to many people it has made the theatre and the trouble of getting there as intolerable as the motor car has made the railway train. . . . I shall not prophesy, but I again remind our managers that theatre-going is very dear, very inconvenient, and horribly stuffy and promiscuous; unless they overcome those disadvantages by the overpowering fascination of good plays, good acting, and theatres that are like enchanted palaces instead of hotel smoking-rooms, broadcasting will knock them out. 3

This positive view of radio drama was shared by some other theater professionals, including, for example, influential...


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