|JANE A. LEWTY
AURALITY AND ADAPTATION: RADIOPLAY IN ULYSSES
The notion of 'aurality' in Joyce's work has recently been restaged and upgraded as a feature of linguistic excavation (as shown, for example, by Laurent Milesi, ed. James Joyce and the Difference of Language, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003). Work in this field is often in dialogue with its predecessors and circles temptingly around how, and where, to position Finnegans Wake in the aftermath of our literary-critical endeavours. In his essay for another collection, Milesi asks if Joyce's "ironic distancing" prevents a totalitarianism of the overall schemes which underscore the Wake, but then points out that Joyce's portmanteau idiom is so pliable that it allows all languages to interact and co-exist: a "cosmopolitics." Furthermore, Joyce's "ideal desire" to let any fragment of the Wake speak to any citizen of the world is that of "the imaginative force of poetry in bridging the post-babelian linguistic gap, if only in a dream."1 Global communication is not achieved through a common denominator but by cross-fertilising single entities. When considering Joyce's trajectory from the particular to the universal, it is possible that the syntheticism of the Wake and its rejection of a single communicative framework, is part of the author's notion of how the work might be accessed or received.
"Received" is an appropriate word. Critics attuned to Joyce's acoustics receive, or hear, the strains of Dante's objective--to distil language--hovering behind Joyce's arrangement. This is always a coherent signpost for our interpretations. But there are other signposts. Harry Levin was the first to suggest that radio might be the medium of Finnegans Wake--a medium described by musician Carlos Chavez in 1927 as "a voice imperfectly understood or heard inopportunely."2 The knowledge that "Especially for 'you'" means "'all' of you" is a seamlessly accepted fact of 21st century media, however, this convergence of personal and general address through radio--which grew from a point-to-point medium into a blanket of worldwide coverage--was accorded greater significance in the 1920s and '30s. Elsewhere, I have suggested that sensitivity to this development contributed to the microdramas of modernist writing, and is clearly evident in Joyce's work, where the notion of communication is treated thematically, figuratively and textually. The presence of radio in the Wake has been acknowledged as a unifying device, as an explanation for the "simultaneous action" of the text, and most rigorously in John Gordon's contention that the sleeper is the signal, the message, and the contraption itself.3 In an effort to consolidate these existing ideas, this essay will focus on Joyce's awareness of the multiform structure of radio, its immediacy and fluidity which allowed for, firstly, the state of subversive encoding; secondly, as embodying the utopian ideal of a decentralising, pluralistic force; and finally, as a new platform for interpretation--on the part of the reader, of course.
Radio advertising is all-present in the Wake, a sometime narrative which is cut and spliced with other genres and alternative codes. This is what Joyce himself would have heard in the 1930's, the "nightly quisquisquock" from various European stations, including, significantly, the commercials from the Ireland Broadcasting Corporation (also known as Radio Athlone) most of which highlighted patent medicines and cosmetics. Not only were some of these adverts censored for being tawdry, but their more genteel replacements were reinforced subliminally--often embedded within a scheduled radio talk, or repeated ad infinitum as the station played on into the night. On one level, this practice would have enhanced Joyce's knowledge of censorship; additionally, it displayed a controlled linguistic manipulation which cannot have gone unnoticed, or even uncopied. For instance, when did the message for laxatives or face powder cease to be received 'correctly,' and when was it comparable to, or heard less effectively than, silence? Was it more successfully received in code, amidst other lines? Language is by nature a distorting medium, as it does not reveal its processes to those who respond and interpret. Radio language, despite broadcasting to a multitude, must somehow surpass this distortion; it transmits a message intended to be the same for all who receive it. The Wake deliberately refutes this in Book II, iii, which is retold several times in variants through the wireless . Conversely, the Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies is "wordloosed over seven seas crowdblast," perhaps as a nod to the advertising tricks of Radio Athlone. A more explicit reference occurs in III, iii, when the people sit over Yawn (Shaun) in judgement. The four old men who conduct the inquest are superseded by "the bright young chaps of the Brandnew Brainstrust"; the transformation from ancient and remote to energetic and modern, is exemplified by the use of a well-known broadcasting motif.4 These are just a few of many clues scattered throughout the Wake, all of which point to Joyce's awareness of how a mass audience could literally be reached: via early radio and its artful strategies. As shown, listeners could be lulled into submission by a popular refrain which secreted alternative information, although such a tactic was rarely constant. Radio is a multichannelled medium, insofar that a bandwidth will always 'let in' opposing frequencies which challenge official discourse and thus threaten the efficacy of the 'planned' assault on the individual (and global) sensorium. This collision of codes was, and still is, enacted in the very structure of wireless itself and was deftly reproduced by Joyce on the page.
In 1924, the first radio play commissioned by the BBC was aired, Danger, by Richard Hughes, a drama of three people trapped down a coal pit. Owing to the unspecified nature and requirements of this new genre, Danger was a purely experimental sound piece. Henceforth, producers grappled with the vagaries of 'radio-literature,' how to approach literary adaptation and experiment with new forms. Ideally, as Edward Sackville-West wrote in 1945, an "Ibsen of the ether" was required, "one who joins things together--words, music, all manner of sounds."5 Sackville-West also pointed out that "the sailor, explorer or fugitive who comes back to his home port, the pilgrim who finds at the programme's climax that 'in my end is my beginning' [...] are all typical figures in an ideal radio drama, as they are in great literature." One might imagine Joyce's work to be fundamentally suited, and this was registered by the (albeit small) pioneering element of the Corporation. In 1947, a producer writing in the BBC Quarterly enquired as to whether Joyce had written Finnegans Wake with radio in mind, "for some adventuresome programme planners who might one day put the seal on the project."6 After all, he added, "what can't be decoded can be decorded if an ear aye seize what no eye ere grieved for." The idea of the earnest, constricted BBC putting "a seal" on the Wake is rather ambitious, not only from an artistic standpoint, but also in the light of its own stringent guidelines. Val Gielgud's publication 'The Right Way to Radio Play Writing' (1945) summarised the criteria of the preceding decade, in that the "three red lights" holding up radio drama were "sex, politics and religion."7 Joyce would hardly be the first choice in such a climate, and it is not for nothing that American critics liked to refer to the Third Programme--the BBC's 'highbrow' consortium founded in 1946--as "the deep freeze of British culture." Two years later, an article by V.S. Pritchett dared to criticise the "dragooning, sterilising and standardising effect" of broadcasting; that it did not provide a platform for "the agitated vernacular writing" of recent times, even though radio seemed to be the natural outlet for a "new" oral/aural literature.8 Pritchett then offered the case of Joyce as a writer producing the only example of "popular and collective art" which would need little adaptation to the medium. "If Joyce has been neglected then the BBC is very vulnerable," he concluded.
During this time, a broadcast of Ulysses was attempted, or rather, suggested, by ex-BBC employee John Keir Cross who had left to pursue a writing career. His report, 'Projected Arrangement for the Broadcasting of Ulysses' was challenged, amended and finally stalled on account of obscenity. Apparent "blemishes" in the text were relayed from producer to producer, attesting to its vile influence, and consequently, the image of the listener--who would also seemingly fail to grasp an overview of civilisation--is invoked repeatedly in the correspondence. Christopher Sykes, an Arts programmer usually willing to diversify, thought the Black Mass scene "surely the most disgusting [...] in great literature" and therefore unsuitable for public consumption (even though Titus Andronicus had been broadcast the previous year).9 Eventually, 'Scylla and Charybdis' was worked into a single-act play by John Keir Cross, called 'The Second Best Bed.' It was aired in spring 1948 and consists of dialogue not dissimilar to a radio talk on an educational topic. Bloom is somewhere, on the edges of conversation. It is significant that the portion of Ulysses allowed by the radio censors should be the chapter where Bloom is hardly present, particularly as Keir Cross had imagined an "immense project" focusing on the "not-immediately-apparent emotional, or human element [...] of Bloom." This surely indicates the failure of translation from one medium into another. Ulysses was perceived as being peripheral in appeal, despite its overriding populist content and expression. Consequently, it was ghettoised, pushed into the remote regions of the Third Programme, and never broadcast correctly. By 'correctly' I mean that the "lyrical nature" of the book which initially attracted Keir Cross failed to be transposed because the BBC could not, and would not, do so. Ulysses was found to be unacceptable on grounds of its all-inclusiveness, its varying portrayals of sex, politics and religion. Therefore, Keir Cross's hope that "a radio version should make of [it] a friendlier work altogether--remove from its stigma of over-highbrowism" seems rather ironic. If a radio adaptation of Ulysses had proceeded, then its effect would be little more than an echo of the original form. Even within the most inconsistent and democratic of devices--the radio, with its leaking bandwidths--censorship prevented the book from being appreciated for its auratic qualities.
With this in mind, the aural, radio-conducive tropes in Joyce's language can be detected; for example, the thunderwords in the Wake mimic the acoustic disturbance of radio static, whereupon white noise is visually rendered. Moreover, the speakers interchange, oscillate and collide like opposing frequencies, becoming the fragments which indeed speak to the world. Imagine a radio broadcast of the Wake which called attention to the capacities of the medium itself. It would be as effective, surely, as Orson Welles's 'panic' broadcast of 1938, where radio was used both as an art form and as electric amplifier for the Last Judgement. It is this purist, even idealistic, element of radio that Joyce considered. Perhaps as a vehicle for the cross-fertilisation of words mentioned earlier in this essay, a notion often signalled through musico-graphic means. In Finnegans Wake, the eye often notes cacophony that the ear silently translates into sound. The thunderwords are not only fractions of noise but also occur in linguistic variations of around 1000 letters. We can imagine a perpetual, distant, noise, far more akin to the music of the spheres than a clunking verbal rendition supplied by a legally operated radio frequency. The Wake, then, is conceivably the sound of the ether itself: a limitless radiospace which is simultaneously vacant and populous.
It is unfortunate, then, that few details exist of the 1932 Berlin radio broadcast of Ulysses by Ivan Goll, who, as Joyce's German translator, would be familiar with the removal of one world to another. In the 1930s and '40s the German horspiel, as it was called, did not mean 'radio play'; it was by definition a 'listening piece' thus encouraging more innovative work than the stricter classifications put in place by the BBC. This noticeable difference in attitude--placing radio as an authentic medium for entertainment whose effect lay entirely in language and its sound-accompaniment, as opposed to being a surrogate for a visual performance or the reading of a book--must have made Goll's experiment a product of the imagination, and not a piece tailored for a target audience. But this is conjecture. I would resist following critics who have, for example, fastened upon Dylan Thomas's dramatical-comical-lyrical "radio poem" Under Milk Wood (1953) as the mouthpiece of features within Ulysses. True, Under Milk Wood, with its rhetorical devices, compound and invented adjectives, the splicing of inner and outer consciousness, and its twenty-four hour time scale, is formally indebted to Joyce, but I do not think Thomas intended his play to reflect the aurality of the older work. Rather it was written specifically "not for the eye but for the ear" and therefore acoustic impact is of primary importance. The radio itself plays the starring role, and at no point are we directed to the visual arrangement of words on a page. For this reason, Under Milk Wood remains curiously immobile, nothing more than a social panorama in a series of vignettes. It is not the 'Wandering Rocks' chapter of Ulysses which necessarily inspires a neatly ordered radio play where the characters are introduced methodically and finally arrive at the same juncture, merged into cohesion along Earl and Lady Dudley's route . It would certainly be a success, but there are instances elsewhere which could be more profoundly, and delicately, converted. The simultaneity of 'Sirens,' the tapping, jingling and singing is incredibly radiophonic, a blend and slippage of signals from far-flung loci. The sequence often reflects a dial passing over, or through, narratives and movements which must continue in their uncorrupted stream. But we scarcely alight upon them before they dissolve. It is Joyce's incessant, restless switching which invites comparison between a mind in transit and a radio being manually operated. Bloom reads Martha's letter, he rummages for money, his thoughts wheel back to the river and mass evangelism, Blazes Boylan is making his way towards Molly:
On. Know what I mean. (dial shift forward) No, change that ee. (dial shift back) Accept my poor little pres enclose. Ask her no answ. (dial shift forward) Hold on. Five Dig. Two about here. (dial shift forward) Penny the gulls. Elijah is coming. (dial shift back) Seven Davy Byrne's. Is eight about. Say half a crown. (dial shift back) My poor little pres: p.o. two and six. Write me a long. Do you despise? (dial shift foward) Jingle, (dial shift back) have you the? So excited.
This example may not constitute a radio piece in the tradition of Under Milk Wood, but it implies a highly sensitive understanding of how the mechanism works, its ruptures and truncations which were either forced (by the active listener manipulating the dial) or suffered (by the passive listener attempting to detect a message through interference). When seen on the page, the script of Sirens automatically requires us to be led and buffeted by its noise.
This essay is, to some extent, raising a debate about forms of 'literature'--a term which has somehow come to mean "verbal art designed to communicate primarily through the medium of print" from which radio must, by definition, be excluded. Sean O'Faolain's analysis in 1952, 'Literature on the Air' raises this issue, claiming that in the case of radio "a sense is sacrificed."10 This seems overtly reductive. One need only read the earliest radio critics from the 1920's who extol the unleashing of the imagination "when its possessor is in darkness [and] prompted by virile suggestions from out the ether." Radio, like the traditional novel, might be said to posit one sense in high definition; whereas reading allows us to speculate on possible performances and likely structures, such as Molly's singing voice or Bloom's perambulations. However, in the acoustic sphere of a radio piece, the dynamics are different: the voice realises in practice what the language of a novel displays in potentia. It denies us the leisurely activity of reducing language to a sequence of isolatable words. Consider Joyce's deployment of "simultaneous action," cross-fertilisation, and the idea that his work not only exhibited the audial characteristics of wireless, but that he also recognised the pure form of a medium which is interactive. The contractual obligation we share with Joyce, as his readers and co-creators is similarly present in any acoustic performance. A radio play derives its permanence not from an exclusively 'literary' state, but from its continual communication with the listener at the level of linguistic reciprocity. This fact has always been countered and swamped by the rise of the authoritarian radio network and its attendant commentary. I am referring to Adorno's atomised radio listener who, as I have shown, was protected from the evils of Ulysses.
In Love's Labour's Lost, Rosaline points out that "[a] jest's propensity lies in the ears/Of him that hears it, never in the tongue/Of him that makes it," and so is the case with Joyce, radio and radio adaptation. The aural in Joyce has prompted Matyas Seiber's cantata Ulysses which--to quote Seiber--"follow[s] the words' lead"11 and John Cage's Roaratorio, which enacts hundreds of noises onomatopaeically from Finnegans Wake. Notably, Cage referred to his work as a horspiel. The very existence of these pieces should remind us that Joyce crafted an integrated semiotic system where all forms of communication--text, illustration, sound technology, the elite and the popular--are co-present. In essence, then, a true bardic performance of what Walter Ong termed "secondary Orality"12 where the spoken word is transmitted in many different ways.
© Jane Lewty, 2005
|volume 6, issue 1, 2005|