Do3 - Tennyson and Edison
Humour this coming weekend in Drama on 3 from David Pownall, 40 years on from his first radio play 'Free Ferry':
Tennyson and Edison - Alfred Lord Tennyson spent half a century mourning his college pal Arthur Hallam and laboured for decades on an epic poetic tribute to him. So, in David Pownall's wry comedy, when inventor and businessman Thomas Edison - a very different kind of genius - asks Tennyson for a short poem to promote his new phonograph, there can only be one choice.
With such an extensive background as a playwright, radio dramatist, screen writer, novelist, short story writer and poet, it isn't easy to categorize Pownall as a writer in just a few words. However, the play on Sunday will concentrate on some of his favourite themes - history, politics and music - and encourage questions about the principal characters.
He is particularly good at unusual pairings. In one of his most famous plays, 'Master Class', the premise was that, in 1948, Stalin and his sidekick Zhdanov had invited the composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich to a soirée. Over numerous draughts of vodka and plenty of false bonhome, they debate the nature of art and its relationship to power, and whether music has any real function in the communist state. 'Master Class' is an extremely funny play, particularly when the protagonists try to produce Stalin's ideal composition and end up creating a cacophonous racket that would shame anyone who really cares for music.
If 'Tennyson and Edison' has similar promise, what we shouldn't expect is historical accuracy. In 'Writing on Wigan Pier', a less than flattering play about George Orwell broadcast on Radio 4 in 2010, Pownall showed that he is more interested in the importance of talking and listening to promote effective communication than he is in reproducing well worn truths.
Last edited by Lateralthinking1; 29-05-12 at 07:59.
I heard a trailer for this, it sounded very good, and mentally made a note of it. It's Sunday at 20:30 and seeing as it's forecast for heavy rain and there's nothing worth watching on tv on Sunday evenings - I'll be listening!
I only managed to listen to about a third of this. I thought it was very poor, weak in concept, lacking in drama, with caricatures for the main protagonists, the wonderful lyric gift of the poet boiled down to banal and anachronistic dialogue. Why do playwrights write about historical characters when they have so much material in their own times?
I thought the play was ok but it was not for anyone seeking very deep meaning. Pownall's Tennyson is old, cantankerous, overwrought and on the verge of madness so the signals he sends out are very mixed. I often think of the Victorian period as being one in which science marched to the future boldly. By contrast, nostalgia seems to be a phenomenon of the modern age. However, Tennyson's changeability in regard to Edison's phonograph is telling. At one moment he doesn't want to record his voice and at the next he does. On a personal level, that is bound up with his decades long grief for Hallam and additional confusion with age about the living and dead. It is though also highly symbolic of attitudes in this country during that period. As Edison reveals with exasperation in the play, Britain is treating his invention as a toy. Other parts of the world are considering it with seriousness.
Originally Posted by aeolium
The Edison in the play is roughly Gordon Gekko. The real Edison showed aggression in business too, not least in terms of the electric chair, but he was more complex than Pownall's caricature. Heavily influenced by Thomas Paine's "The Age of Reason", non-violence was key to his moral views but there was no sense of that morality in this drama. He was also close to deafness. This was revealed in the play and the irony of that condition in the inventor of the phonograph wasn't wholly lost. Nevertheless, the greater complexity and irony were always placed in the character of Tennyson. This simplification helped to provide clarity. It was more than enough for the listener to cope with one set of complexities. One of the greatest ironies was that the poet had arguably refused to hear clearly that Hallam had ever died. Simultaneously he was almost a force of nature that others danced around.
Unsurprisingly, the two main characters argue over whether a recorded voice is potentially a life after death or just another form of death. Edison takes the former view being all about practicalities and money making. Tennyson is inclined to take the latter position but he is not without guilt that Hallam has been an inspiration to his poetry. There may be something biblical in his outlook that a close friend had died so that he would be able to achieve. If not, then it is certainly a double edged sword. And yet because Hallam has never really died in his head, he has been an internal phonograph to him. His own work is virtually a form of plagiarism. And while never stated, it is confusing and troubling to Tennyson that an external device has been created that is not at all dissimilar. Consequently, his initial, distinctly non-commercial, thoughts are of recording a message to Hallam and posting it into his grave.
Throughout the play there is also fraught dialogue with a son who he has overlooked and used. "My son has been a wax cylinder", he blurts out emotionally during one of his many occasions of confusion, torment and anguish. Hence along with the hint of religion, there is more than a little of the supernatural too, based on Victorian anxieties. The more there was excitement about scientific advancement, the greater was the sense that they didn't quite know what the potential dangers might be. That anxiety rings true for a post 20th century audience which has had to accommodate nuclear technology, IT, medical trials, GM crops, fracking and very much more. The way many take such things in their stride now owes much to the fact that there have been so many. At the same time there is a little of Hallam in everyone. It isn't mortal but in all the nostalgic collections of records and photographs.
Here is the perspective from Radio Drama Reviews Online - http://www.radiodramareviews.com/id1074.html
Last edited by Lateralthinking1; 07-06-12 at 14:55.
Foregoing is a good review and summary, yet seems not quite to formulate the basic paradox. This radio play is a melodrama: but the ingredients of the melodrama are not jeopardy, death, menace or the other things that usually make melodrama go. The ingredients here are instead philosophical views about death and survival, and about new technology and people's responses to it. These constituent ideas are presented dramatically but (to my ear) not particularly well. Even if they were superbly dramatised, I doubt that they really fit the frame of a melodrama. The actors did as much as they possibly could, but in this case I fear dramatist Pownall may have attempted an impossible task. These philosophical ideas do not make the melodramatic mechanism work.