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The Rediscovered Art of Radio Drama

June 19, 1988|DAN SULLIVAN

The old saw was that if aspirin had just been invented, people would think of it as a wonder drug. Then the report on aspirin's usefulness in checking heart attacks came out, and people realized that it was a wonder drug.

It's the same with radio. We know that it can dispense news, weather and sports. We forget what magical things it can do with drama.

"We" means Americans. The BBC has never pulled the plug on radio drama, as can be heard twice daily (3:30 and 7 p.m.) on KCRW Playhouse.

But the American networks gave up on radio drama when TV came in, and never had supported it in a big way.

There were the soap operas, of course, and the mysteries, and the after-school adventure shows. Anyone who wonders what they were like can get a good idea from KNX's Radio Drama Hour nightly at 9.

Those who grew up with these shows are charmed to hear them again. But after 10 minutes or so, it's clear that yesterday's formula entertainment wasn't all that superior to today's, although the formulas may have been a little less vicious.

There were the great Jack Benny shows, and there were the average ones. Network radio cranked it out week to week, and the bulk of its output belongs in the files.

The best of it, though, demonstrates how powerfully the mind can be seized by a tale when it is told strictly through the ear. This is the secret of radio, and it has nothing to do with nostalgia. It's as available to today's storyteller as it was to yesterday's.

Garrison Keillor certainly proved it on "Prairie Home Companion." (His old shows can be heard from 6 to 8 p.m. Sundays on KUSC.) As they say, Keillor almost makes you see it--the Side Track tap, the boat full of clerics sinking slowly into the lake.

When listening to a play on the radio, however, a lot of the magic comes from the fact that we don't see it. For example, Ray Bradbury once wrote a story called "Mars Is Heaven," in the middle of which an sleepy Indiana town turns into . . . something else .

"Mars Is Heaven" plays well on the stage (the Colony Studio Theatre Playhouse once did it) but the hackles don't rise as they do when you hear those faces change, as on the old Dimension X broadcast from the '50s.

It's not that the listener is visualizing the shape they might be changing into. It's that he feels the presence of something too alien to visualize.

Everybody knows what it's like to become so involved in reading a book that signals from the outside don't register. The words build up a world, a world that probably varies from reader to reader. There is no need to illustrate the book. In fact, it can be a distraction.

Radio has the same power to get into your head--to seize control of a chamber ever more central than the one where visual images are stored. Again, it's basically done with words. But here the words have body and shape. They become a string of living sounds, like a musical score.

That is true of words in the theater too. But in the theater (and all the more so in the movies) we are also busy processing the color of the actress's dress. In radio we train down on that one channel. The actress packs everything into her voice that she might have conveyed with a gesture. The listener really lends her his ears.

Good conditions for drama. And every few years someone devises a scheme to revive radio drama in America. One of the best was "Earplay," which commissioned new scripts from name playwrights. Arthur Kopit's "Wings," concerning a recovering stroke victim, went on to have a life in the theater.

The latest venture has its roots in the theater. Los Angeles Classic Theatre Works is a conglomeration of actors who make good money in Hollywood, but want to do some serious work on the stage.

(As an ensemble, that is. As individuals, Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, Rene Auberjonois, Nan Martin and their colleagues regularly turn up at theaters like the Taper and the Los Angeles Theatre Center.)

The problem is finding the time and, always, the money. Radio demands less of both than stage work, so for the moment the group is concentrating on that. The results have been so convincing that the BBC bought the group's marathon production of "Babbitt" last Thanksgiving and co-produced two shows with them during the UK/LA Festival--"The Crucible" and "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been."

The group's latest production is Kopit's "O Dad Poor Dad Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad," first heard on KCRW on Mother's Day and to be repeated today, Father's Day, at 6 p.m.

That's a joke, son, as Senator Klaghorn used to say. Kopit wrote "O Dad" when he was still in college, as a spoof of the new Eternal Triangle in American drama: Devouring Mother--Absent Father--Sensitive Son.

But "O Dad" isn't entirely a joke, no more than the film "Harold and Maude" was. And cleverly this version stars Bud Cort, whose stammering Jonathan has everything in common with his Harold, while being quite a distinct creation. (Jonathan's more American, for one thing.)

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