The Citizen Kane of Radio Drama, from a post on Modern Soundling

In a previous post, I discussed how Orson Welles' War of the Worlds isn't all that great. It got me thinking about what was.

In film, we have Citizen Kane as a benchmark in a variety of different ways, and the greatness of Kane is a topic that comes up frequently. In radio, however, I wasn't sure what play would be the equivalent. Now, some people say pshaw to the whole concept, but I say pshaw to them. It's an interesting exploration of the medium we love, and to be able to define and express ourselves about the medium is a useful exercise. So - what is the Citizen Kane of radio drama?

First we have to look at Citizen Kane. There's a reason why Kane sits atop the lists as the “greatest film ever made.” Several reasons, in fact. And I'm going to claim some expertise here because not only do I know an awful lot about Welles, I also have a degree in film. There's no point in trying to argue about it, Kane is a great film whether you like it or not. And it is the “best.” I don't know if it's actually the best movie ever made, but it is the “best” movie ever made. I use the quotations because “best” is an interesting social construction. Whether or not you can platonically deem it to be perfection, the film occupies a space in our culture and in our critical understanding of the medium that exerts a socio-gravitational pull toward Greatest-ness. Kane's reputation rests upon these planks:

  1. Strength. Citizen Kane has no real weakness. Almost every film has something wrong with it, something that it could have done better. But Kane is a relentlessly executed intention. It does what it sets out to do, and its goal is a laudable one.

  2. Technical innovation. Kane was a game-changer in many technical ways, pioneering techniques in sound, montage, and cinematography.

  3. Critical attention. A lot of people have talked about it, written about it, dissected it and hung their critical lenses on it. It isn't just admired by critics – it is a jumping-off point for reams of critical theory.

  4. Influence. The film made an impact on generations of filmmakers and theorists. It's still influencing people.

There are other factors, of course. The mythic nature of the story, the mythic nature of Welles himself, and the nature of film as an artistic medium all contribute in other ways to making Kane the obvious choice to top the list. That's really my point here – there's no other film that stands out so fundamentally as a possible “best movie ever” than Kane. The Godfather, for example, is at heart a simple, well-crafted narrative. It doesn't have the textually challenging aspects of Kane that elevate a brilliantly told story to a level of brilliant art. Not that I would say The Godfather isn't art. What the hell is? The Godfather isn't artsy enough to be the top of the list.

To summarize, we're looking for a radio play that is a perfectly realized artistic intention with no noticeable weaknesses. We're looking for a play that goes beyond technical dexterity, something that becomes a technical pioneer. We're looking for something that a lot of people (relatively speaking) know about, have discussed and analyzed. It has to have impacted the critical discourse, such as it is. And it needs to be influential and inspiring to others.

The one audio drama that comes to mind, at the moment, is:

Under Milk Wood


Dylan Thomas

A “play for voices,” Under Milk Wood was broadcast in 1954 to incredible attention and fanfare. It has been repeated, re-recorded, broadcast, published, discussed, criticized and critiqued on both sides of the Atlantic since its inception. If you haven't heard it, I highly recommend it. Thomas employs his lusty, exuberant writing in the creation of a torrent of voices that walk a fine edge between prose and poetry, with some of the finest dialog written for audio.

It does not perfectly match our criteria. I'm unsure of the influence of Under Milk Wood on radio drama as a whole. There needs to be more scholarship on the medium to demonstrate that accurately. I'm not sure about its technical achievements as an actual radio broadcast. It didn't employ stereophonic sound first, for example. It wasn't the first attempt at blending poetry and dialog in original audio form – Louis MacNeice was doing verse radio plays a decade earlier. The play wasn't even produced by the drama department. Instead, it fell under the aegis of Features.

Under Milk Wood delivers a day in the life of a town in Wales, told in dream-like fragments by the voices of its inhabitants, guided by two narrators. In structure, it is not very dramatic. Kane, by contrast, has a very straightforward narrative structure, which is simply rearranged out of chronological sequence. Welles came out of theatre and his adherence to classic theatre narrative is apparent. Thomas comes out of two different traditions – poetry and radio features. It's important to keep in mind that Thomas wrote many scripts for the BBC, and had thorough command of the medium before Under Milk Wood. The weak “narrative” of Thomas' play is deliberate in a sense. Although Thomas never demonstrated a great affinity for classical narrative, his work in radio consistently blends his poetic inclinations with the anthropological structures of radio features.

Features are an interesting topic which I'll have to talk more about in another post, but if you aren't familiar with them, they are loosely defined as being radio programmes that are non-fiction, employing the techniques and structures of fiction frequently. I think that's a fair definition. In any case, you can see where Thomas gets his orientation from. It's not from Sophocles. This matters because we're talking about technical achievements. I can't point to specific radio broadcasting achievements in Under Milk Wood, although there may be, but I can point to a unique achievement in terms of dialog.

Thomas' dialog has a precision in seeming-chaos, bringing out the musical affinity that audio drama contains within its aural nature. Thomas presides over ebbs and flows of dialog, rhymes and anti-rhymes, smooth pours and harsh juxtapositions. The technical achievement of the play lies within the very words themselves, and their intricate relationship to one another. Each voice is perfectly crafted as an instrument in a symphony.

The play invites comparison to Joyce's Ulysses. Others have argued about how apropos such comparisons may be. Their intentions are not necessarily similar, their mediums very different. But in terms of cultural resonance, there is a connection, and since Ulysses has been named the Greatest Novel at several different junctures, this supports the choice of Under Milk Wood as the Greatest Radio Play. There is a kinship in scope and totality of purpose that I find compellingly similar between all three works. All three have strong framing mechanisms related to time. Joyce and Thomas use single days to describe a whole lifetime of experience in their respective towns. Welles does the same thing, but on the scale of a nation rather than a town. All three are singularly personal projects, born of anti-establishment iconoclasts who broke rules and invented new ones. The flavor of critical acclaim and attention, and the continuing influence of the works in their respective mediums gives these three works of art similar footprints.

But something is not quite right. There is only one true version of Citizen Kane, and one true version of Ulysses...but when we talk about Under Milk Wood, which one are we talking about? There have been several productions over the years, in radio, on stage, and on film. Is only the first one definitive?

This brings up a question for another day, a question fundamental to audio drama as a medium. Where does authorial primacy rest? Is it the text as written by the playwright, as in theatre, or is it in the final product of the recorded medium, as in film? Perhaps it has changed over time.