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Drama in Old Time Radio

Lux Radio Theater: 'In Name Only': Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Kay Francis
"The Theater" is Drama, but there is more to Drama than that. The craft of acting and the techniques of putting on a show are certainly elements of drama. In some ways they are refined and improved in the modern age by Movies and Television (this is open to argument). Radio Drama, the so called "Theater of the Mind", may be the most powerful form of Drama.

Radio YesteryearTV, Movies, and the Stage all rely on conveying visual messages to the audience. The worlds they develop literally have to be seen to be believed. From the earliest painted stage backgrounds to modern CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), it is growing ever easier to convey a story visually. While the audience will enjoy and appreciate what they see, they have also been taught to not believe everything they see. In Radio Drama, the audience only has the information that is given to them aurally from the radio speaker. There is no time or space for extra description, such as a book can convey, and of course no pictures. But even with this limited amount of information to work with, the Human Imagination goes to work, creating bigger and more spectacular images than could ever be shown on a screen.

Perhaps this is a result of the audience's "willing suspension of disbelief", which is considered an essential ingredient of any type of story telling. The suspension of disbelief allows the story-teller to weave a tale about cavemen fleeing predatory dinosaurs when dinosaurs had been extinct for eons before the first cave-man stood erect. While this may be a difficult sell on the screen, because radio asks little of its audience, the audience is more willing to participate in the imagery of the story.

The genre of drama is often categorized as a contrast to comedy. But Drama is represented by the twin masks of Comedy and Tragedy. Classically, Tragedies are tales where the characters meet a terrible fate because of their own flaws. Whether that fate is deserved or not, the audience is sympathetic to the character. In contrast, Comedies are  generally stories with a Happy Ending. Through the years, Comedy has become more defined as a work intended to make the audience laugh.

It is  in the genre of Drama that more emotional and heart-rending themes are explored. These theme can range from class divisions, marital or sibling infidelity, racial strife, moral dilemma, corruption, or even natural phenomena. A central part of any Drama is conflict. It is the task of the story-teller to define this conflict. The entertainment for the audience is seeing how the characters resolve the conflict. The results should always be somewhat in doubt, which leads us back to the suspension of disbelief.

Vintage RadioThe audience has an expectation that the Hero will win his conflict, and that the Bad Guy will be punished, or at least not find the reward he is seeking. Drama, as a genre, is an incredibly large field, and there are a number of sub-genres, and most people find they have a favorite.

In Historical Drama, where the audience knows the result of the conflict, the characters themselves do not know. Observing how they move through the resolution, and seeing  how they react to fate is the payoff for the audience. In the Historical Drama, Horizons West, most audiences are aware that Lewis and Clark managed to cross the Continent to the Pacific Ocean, and return to the East. But that doesn’t make the drama any less entertaining.

Romance Dramas of course deal with Romantic Love, and the pitfalls, twists, and eventually happiness that Romantic Love entails. Most Romances are also melodramas,in which the plots and the characters are often exaggerated for emotional effect. Soap Operas are usually melodramas, as evidenced by some of their other labels, like Weepies or "Cry in Your Dishwater Shows". It is hard to believe that there could be anyone as evil as those who stand between Ruth Evans and the man she loves, Dr. John Wayne, in Big Sister. But we tune in every afternoon, because Ruth has captured our hearts.

Grantland RiceDocumentary and Historical Drama deal with actual people and events. Here it must be accepted that the writer is allowed so degree of license with his subject. There is no way of knowing exactly what a person said in specific situations, unless the speech has been recorded. This is especially true in the case of figures that lived decades or even centuries before the Drama is written and performed. Biographies have always been a favorite form of Historical Drama. American Portraits gives us the lives of the Nation's Fore Fathers, and American Gallery profiles some of our greatest Artists. Captains of Industry brings us some of the great Industrialists who helped to build our Nation.

Sports Drama is an interesting "sub-sub" genre of historical dramas. While it can be said sports are not truly Drama, there is no arguing that many scenes from the world of sports are truly Dramatic. Also, dramatized stories from the lives of great sports figures, such as Babe Ruth or those celebrated in the writings of Grantland Rice certainly have lessons and virtues that are valuable lessons to young audiences.

Western Drama are usually too highly fictionalized to be considered Historical Drama, even when they are based on real events and situations that occurred on the American Frontier between the end of the Civil War and the early years of the Twentieth century. Some of the Westerns intended for younger audiences were highly Melodramatic. More mature Westerns, such as The Six Shooter and Gunsmoke explore themes that appeal to any drama fan; cheating, double-dealing, honesty, intolerance, infidelity and so on.

Orson WellesThriller Drama is another favorite form of drama for radio. The defining characteristic of a Thriller is a sense of fearful excitement; if it thrills, it's a Thriller! Crime dramas are common thrillers, and whether the hero is a Hard-Boiled Detective in the tradition of Philip Marlowe or Johnny Dollar, or a more thoughtful, intellectual type like Gregory Hood or The Saint,the satisfaction was seeing Justice prevail. Of course the very temple of Justice is the focal point of Courtroom Dramas, and these procedural dramas were just as well received during the golden Age of Radio as they are on TV today. Shows like You are the Jury and Order in the Court take the listener right before the Judge's bench to see justice done.

There is nothing more dramatic and thrilling than a good scare, and radio doesn't disappoint with it great Thriller Anthologies like Arch Oboler's Plays, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, or, perhaps the greatest Radio feature of all time, Suspense!These shows, along with a number of similar features, gave audiences plenty of thrills, and probably night mares to kids listening when they should have been in bed!

Literary Drama popularity of literary drama shows on radio is not surprising. Programs like American Novels, Readers Digest Theater, Tell it Again and Studio One each turned to the literature of novels and short stories for story material. Few great novels, such as the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper and Le Miserablesadapted by Orson Welles further demonstrate that literature and radio were a good fit. Literary purists will argue that much of the beauty of the work is lost when adapted to radio, especially when a great piece like Moby Dick is reduced to a half hour. While this may be true to a degree, the radio adaptations may be the spark that attracts a young mind to begin appreciating great literature.

Cary Grant faceMovie and play adaption was somewhat surprisingly is the success of radio. Shows like Lux Radio Theater, Screen Directors Playhouse, Hollywood Star Time and others seem were very popular, and still are with collectors. Before the age of DVDs and on-line movie streaming, seeing a movie or play was rather inconvenient; you had to get dressed, take the kids or find a sitter, pay for popcorn, and you weren’t allowed to put your feet up. Still, the experience of going to the movies was an over all good one, even if you couldn’t partake as often as you wanted. The radio audience may not get to see the quizzical look on Cary Grant’s face, or the grandeur of Monument Valley in a John ford Western, but for those who couldn’t get to the movies, such as those in rural areas, radio brought the movies into homes before television could. Watching a movie on the radio may seem a poor substitute for the theater experience, but it brings home that the story is more important than the pictures.

The most important elements of drama are the elements of good storytelling; characters, conflict, narrative, and resolution. It is true in the age of eBooks and Podcasts; it was true in the Golden age of Radio; it has been true since the first caveman, speaking around the campfire, told of his companion’s bravery on the mammoth hunt.


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