By Rocío Perez, Dramaturg, The Resistsible Rise of Arturo Ui
In the first few lines of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui we hear an announcer:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we present today
the great historical gangster play!”
This introduction to the show is a reminder of how we once consumed and experienced spoken word: the radio drama. Radio Drama is a dramatic performance on the radio or published through audio media. Without a visual element, radio drama relies on the voice, dialogue, music, and sound effects to create its fictional world and its characters.
Emerson Stage’s upcoming production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is inspired in part by the rich legacy of radio drama (which enjoyed the height of its popularity during the lifetime of playwright Bertolt Brecht). This production is not staged as a radio drama per se, but the cast and creative team reflected during rehearsals on the connections between radio and contemporary digital drama–including their ability to reach audiences in many different places at once.
The BBC began radio transmission in the United Kingdom in 1922. On 14 November 1922, Arthur Burrows, the Director of Programs at the BBC, launched Britain’s first national radio broadcasting service from the Macroni House in London.
Within a decade, drama performed on this new medium achieved widespread popularity, and by the 1940s, radio drama was a leader in entertainment. Though with the start of widespread use of the television in the 1950s, it lost some popularity and in some countries was unable to regain large audiences, in the UK, radio drama is still consumed daily. In the United States, radio drama has held a small presence on radio and has also, as of the early 2010s, begun a transition to digital streaming platforms.
Today, radio drama has made a resurgence as artists find new ways to create and perform under distancing measures implemented to stop the spread of COVID-19. Various theatre companies have transitioned over to a radio drama format to present their seasons and indirectly provided access to the theatre to millions of theatre lovers and newcomers across the nation and the world.
As the pandemic continues, theatre as we know it will remain shut down until further notice, but in the meantime as artists we have committed ourselves to venture into new territories to present our work. Created in a time of general unrest and under the shadow of an election that will define our lives and country for generations, our company’s remote performance echoes powerfully in the context of both history and the present.
HERE ARE SOME RADIO DRAMAS TO LISTEN TO:
“A Comedy of Danger” (1924)—The first play written for the radio drama format.
“The War of Worlds” (1938)—One of the most definitive radio plays in the 20th century.
“Richard II” (July 2020)—The Public Theatre in Collaboration with WNYC; in the absence of Shakespeare in the Park, we turn to radio.
“Soundstage” (2020)—Because of the pandemic, theatre has had to mold into new form. With this podcast, Playwrights Horizon “unites beloved writers and actors to craft scripted audio experiences of new plays and musicals.”
To learn more about The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, check out the production’s dramaturgy website.