Louis MacNeice: Enter Caesar

julius caesar

Enter Caesar, broadcast in the BBC Home Service on September 20 1946, is the first text in the chronologically ordered Persons from Porlock and other plays for radio (BBC 1969), but it is not and never was a play.

BBC Home Service September 30 1946, produced by MacNeice, music by Elisabeth Lutyens, conductor Warwick Braithwaite.

Centurion, Ivor Barnard; Schoolmaster, Duncan McIntyre; Sulla, Esme Percy; Apollonius, Malcolm Graeme; Crassus, Cyril Gardner; Pompey, Laidman Browne; Catulus, Ernest Thesiger; Bibulus, Alexander Sarner; Cisalpine Gaul, Harry Hutchinson; Gabinus, Roger Snowden; Cicero, Cecil Trouncer; Cato, Mark Dignam; Clodia, Grizelda Hervey; Clodius, John Chandos; Milo, Howard Marion-Crawford; and members of the BBC Repertory Company

Enter Caesar, broadcast in the BBC Home Service on September 20 1946, is the first text in the chronologically ordered Persons from Porlock and other plays for radio (BBC 1969), but it is not and never was a play. It is a feature. The BBC definition of a feature was always complex and has changed over the decades. Today it is a documentary, in the 1950s and ‘60s it was probably most noticeably the Radio Ballads, but originally it developed from the work of the Programme Research Department set up in the wake of the dismissal of the first, experimental Head of Drama, R E Jeffrey, in 1928. The purpose of the department was stated in the memo announcing its creation:[i]

“Its primary function will be creative work in every direction, the only routine responsibility at present being the conduct of the weekly ‘Surprise Item’. It will be particularly concerned with such matters as special feature programmes with or without reference to particular dates.”

Because the Programme Research Department included Jeffrey’s closest and most experimental associates –Lance Sieveking, whose sound and verse Kaleidoscope (1928) was ‘played’ on the Dramatic Control Panel (DCP) at Savoy Hill, and Archie Harding, who brought Ezra Pound’s ‘hobo’ opera The Testament of François Villon to the airwaves in1931 – the outcome was always likely to be both radical and drama-based. Having been rusticated to Manchester, Harding collaborated with Geoffrey Bridson to develop the form, and Bridson’s March of the ’45 (1936) became one of the most influential and widely-heard radio plays of all time – without actually being a play. Bridson wrote plays – his Aaron’s Field (1939) was the first radio play broadcast by the BBC after the outbreak of war – but he specialised in features, finding artistic freedom by combining his gift for declamatory verse with the technological potential of the DCP (Manchester was the only regional station to have one) and the technique of local actors and performers such as Jimmie Miller (Ewan McColl).

The feature was such an amorphous form that definition defied even those in charge of it. Val Gielgud, who headed the joint Drama and Features Department from 1929 to 1945, declared in 1947, “a Feature Programme is any programme item – other than a radio play – whose author makes use of the specialised technique of radio-dramatic production.”[ii]

Laurence Gilliam, who ran the independent post-war Features Department for the whole of its existence, was no more helpful: “In its simplest form,” he wrote in 1950, the feature programme aims at combining the authenticity of the talk with the dramatic force of a play, but unlike the play, whose business it is to create dramatic illusion for its own sake, the business of the feature is to convince the listener of the truth of what it is saying, even though it is saying it in dramatic form.”[iii]

And finally there is Rayner Heppenstall, who joined Features immediately after the war and who only produced radio plays at the end of his career. In his introduction to Imaginary Conversations (1948), a series of non-factual scripted dialogues between historical people, performed by actors, Heppenstall attempts to answer the question he is always being asked:

“Adopting a tentative manner and using inflexions calculated to suggest a fresh and spontaneous approach, I would murmur, ‘Well, I suppose anything between a talk on the one hand and a play on the other could be regarded as a feature. Of course, there’s always supposed to be some factual interest, but then most things are factual, don’t you find? … And the information is presented dramatically, more or less…”[iv]

MacNeice, like Bridson, wrote plays and features. He was departmentally always a Features employee yet his major works, Christopher Columbus (1942) and The Dark Tower (1946), have traditionally been regarded as plays. The latter certainly is, but a case can be made for classing Columbus as a dramatic feature at the most elaborate end of the scale. Heppenstall, for example, says he cites “Louis MacNeice’s verse epics” as “concrete instances” of features, “being careful to point out, however, that The Dark Tower was regarded as a play.”[v]

Fortunately, Enter Caesar is definitely a feature. It uses actors – members of the BBC Repertory Company – and it uses scripted dialogue, but there is no real sense of place, nor any plot to speak of. What we have is a thesis – that Caesar rose like Hitler and Mussolini and knowledge of how he did so is therefore relevant to the modern world – which MacNeice expounds through his mouthpiece characters. That we, the listener, are being in a sense lectured is driven home by the second scene, which leaves an unnamed Roman centurion getting his first glimpse of the White Cliffs of Dover[vi] and switches to a post-war classroom where a Scottish teacher is desperately trying to interest his pupils in De Bello Gallico: “Och, I know the Bellum Gallicum is a bore but it’s better written than Mein Kampf … What’s the connection with Hitler? All right; close your books. I’ll try and paint for you now the history of a dictator.”[vii]

Perhaps more should have been made of the framing device – the schoolmaster does not reappear until virtually the end of the piece.   Further interventions from Duncan McIntyre’s familiar brogue might have enlivened the progression of what are essentially the same voices – the patrician politicians of republican Rome. Shakespeare recognised the problem; his Caesar is more often than not encountered with his wife, Calpurnia. Here we have a brief appearance from Caesar’s first wife, Cornelia, urging him to divorce her for the sake of his career; otherwise the only recurring woman of the ruling class is the debauched Clodia, sister of the degenerate Clodius. W H Auden, in his introduction to the 1969 collection, claims that Enter Caesar “gives those of us who are not, like MacNeice, classical scholars who have read all the historical documents, a clear understanding of the political and social conditions in the Roman Republic after Sulla’s death.”[viii] I would suggest that the Clodia/Clodius relationship, and the Bona Dea scandal which was certainly a factor in Caesar’s rise, needs more explanation than MacNeice is able to give it, in 1946, and in forty-five minute programme. There is, understandably, no hint of transvestism or incest.

More interesting than any of the characters that do appear, and there are at least thirty-five of them, is of course the one who doesn’t. Shakespeare gave his eponymous character less than 150 lines before killing him off at the beginning of Act Three; MacNeice goes further and gives his Caesar none at all. Everything in the script is about Caesar but we hear nothing from him. Auden neatly sums up the mise en scène: “What we hear are a series of political discussions by others, both professional politicians and men-in-the-street about him. Is he a danger to them personally or to the State, or is he a saviour? Would it be good policy to support him or oppose him? In either case, what steps should be taken?”[ix]

The scenes involving men- and women-in-the-street work well, especially the final scene – a centurion and a freedwoman drunkenly celebrating the festival of Anna Perenna, which also happens to be the Ides of March, toasting Caesar a long life, unaware that he has been assassinated. The scenes of political debate work less well, principally because there are so many of them. Contrary to Auden’s assertion, one can’t help feeling that MacNeice’s scholarship got the better of him on occasion – that ‘names’ like Cicero and Cato have been shoe-horned in purely because they were there historically. In contrast, one effective voice is not human at all: in a bravura device typical of the dramatic feature, Cisalpine Gaul offers us his opinion on behalf of the entire provincial population:

“I always knew that Caesar would come to the top – but not to a top like this. Did you see Crassus when he passed? Did you see Pompey? They looked a bit awkward, didn’t they? The Three Big Men they call them but every triangle has an apex. And I know who the apex is this time.”[x]

Another signature of the feature, and MacNeice’s radio work overall, is the use of music. Walton scored Columbus, Britten The Dark Tower, but this lesser work warranted a less well known composer, Elisabeth Lutyens, a Shoenbergian serialist in youth, but later relegated to the soundtrack on British horror films. MacNeice was specific in the sort of music he wanted and how it worked with his text. The segue from the schoolroom to Sulla’s revival of the dictatorship in 82BC is detailed thus: “fade up orchestra, first few bars reminiscent of Horst Wessel, then twist into Legionary March and end triumphant.”[xi] Caesar’s rise to power is marked with ‘Caesar’s fanfare’, often set against ‘Forum music’ when his enemies in the Senate strike back.[xii]

The use of stock sound effects in BBC features had become proverbial by the end of the war. Gilliam’s 1933 “gramophone record of mewing sea-gulls became a music-hall joke,” according to the Allans in 1948, “and that of the car with its squealing brakes bored instead of thrilled.”[xiii] Heppenstall, writing the same year, observes, “Our radio critics, those incarnations of public taste, incline towards a myth in which there are two types of radio production, the tasteful (without effects) and the misguided (with).”[xiv] For a time producers eschewed effects altogether.[xv] MacNeice uses music instead of effects. His thunder is ‘orchestral’, the march of legionaries a military march. He uses vocal babble to suggest crowds. He clearly intends to be tasteful without falling into the trap of silent sterility.

Tasteful he may have been, but he failed to impress. MacNeice was highly rated by the BBC Listener Panels for both Plays and Features but Enter Caesar was not well received. The Listener Research Bulletin for the week reported, “Although the audience for this feature compared reasonably well with that for other Friday night features at this time,[xvi] 10%, its Appreciation Index was disappointing, only 46. Friday night features rarely have Appreciation Indeces lower than 60.”[xvii]

Perhaps, after all, MacNeice would have done better to show us something of Caesar the man, the opportunist, the strategist, the mover and shaker, and less of Caesar the absent iconoclast.


[i] Controller to Control Board etc., December 10 1928, “Programme Research Department” (WAC 12/77/1) Geilgud, Val Henry, Personal File

[ii] Val Gielgud (1947) Years of the Locust, London, Nicholson & Watson, p. 74

[iii] Laurence Gilliam (1950) BBC Features, London, Evans, p. 10

[iv] Rayner Heppenstall (1948) Imaginary Conversations, London, Secker & Warburg, p. 10

[v] Ibid, p. 11

[vi] Under the terms of the 1928 memo Enter Caesar was a feature programme with reference to a particular date, in this instance 54BC, the pretext being that 1946 was 2000th anniversary of the Roman invasion of Britain.

[vii] Louis MacNeice (1969) Persons from Porlock and other plays for Radio, London, BBC, p. 13

[viii] MacNeice 1969: 9




The radio plays of Angela Carter


The late, great Angela Carter was an aficionado of radio drama.  She enlivened in it every bit as much as she re-energised the fairy story.  She writes, in her introduction to this collection: “It is the necessary open-endedness of the medium, the way the listener is invited into the narrative to contribute to it his or her own way of ‘seeing’ the voices and the sounds, the invisible beings and events, that gives radio story-telling its real third dimension…”

I like that phrase inordinately – “seeing the voices and the sounds.”  That is what the best radio drama  always requires and the average never quite does.

In consequence, Carter favoured a free-flowing dramatic structure in which the place can change just because we are told it has.  Character, however, remains constant, often the protagonist at the epicentre of some kaleidoscopic maelstrom which she or, more often he, controls to some extent.   We have strong narration to guide us through – the magnificent Puss himself in Puss in Boots, male and female uncharacterised narrators in the title piece, and Hero rather the title character in VampirellaThe Company of Wolves is more layered and has various characters telling us their element of the story.  The three ‘fairy tales’, of course, also appear in Carter’s short stories; Puss and Wolves began in print and were ‘re-worked’ for radio; with Vampirella it was the other way round.

Come Unto These Yellow Sands is the key work here, a wholly original work for radio, an impressionistic evocation of the life and work of the Victorian painter Richard Dadd, who murdered his father and spent the rest of his life in Bedlam and Broadmoor.  What really captures the interest here is that the life and work are treated equally.  Dadd’s life, so far as the world was concerned, ended when he committed his act of parricide, but he continued to paint and the characters from his paintings – the fairy folk that obsessed him – come alive in his imagination.  We have Oberon and Titania, the Fairy Feller himself, and they speak rationally.  But all the time, in the background, we have the shrieks, yelps and gibbers of Dadd’s demons.

I would classify Yellow Sands as what used to be called a dramatic feature, the form which I claim in my thesis the BBC invented (through Sieveking’s Kaleidoscope, Pound and Harding’s ballad opera of Villon, and Harding and Bridson’s collaboration in Manchester).  It is the form which, through Bridson’s March of ’45, inspired original radio drama in the US and, later, throughout the Commonwealth.  It is the radiophonic art form – drama which can only exist on radio no matter how many attempts are made to put Under Milk Wood on the stage.

Similarly, I would disagree with Carter about her classification of Puss as commedia dell’arte.  To my mind it is an English burlesque in the manner of Fielding.  It’s great fun, nonetheless.  Personally, I didn’t take to Company of Wolves as a piece of drama (too obviously adapted from another form) but I did find inspiration for my own creative work therein.  Vampirella, a title which promises a gothic version of Barberella, turned out to be quite touching.  But it is Yellow Sands that stands out.  I loved it so much that I read it again, straight away.

I don’t suppose there’s any chance of a revival any time soon, so contemporary aficionados must settle for the scripts.

I might quibble with Carter’s terminology but I wholly endorse her conclusion:

…in its most essential sense, even if stripped of all the devices of radio illusion, radio retains the atavistic lure, the atavistic power, of voices in the dark, and the writer who gives the words to those voices retains some of the authority of the most antique tellers of tales.

Review – Best Radio Plays of 1989

You start looking for radio scripts – and all roads lead to Penguin New Writing 11, which is all very well but…

The truth is, there are zillions of radio scripts out there, you just have to know where to look.

In the eighties things were slightly simpler because we had Methuen’s invaluable “Best Radio Plays of…” series, which ran from 1978 to 1989 and gave us the winners of that year’s Giles Cooper Awards for BBC radio drama.

Cooper is a thesis subject unto himself.  It is a disgrace that he is not venerated alongside his peers – and in radio drama terms I put him on a par with no less a luminary than Samuel Beckett.  So far as the awards go, what matters is that Cooper died young.  He was 48 when he fell from a train passing through Surbiton in December 1966.

To start at the end, which is a very Cooperish thing to do, what we have here are the last award winners before John Birt wielded the axe.

The Baby Buggy by Elizabeth Baines, Afternoon Play 16/8/89, producer Susan Hogg.

O Ananias, Azarias and Misael by Jennifer Johnston, Thirty Minute Theatre, producer Jeremy Howe.

The Stalin Sonata by David Zane Mairowitz, Drama Now (R3) 1/8/89, producer Richard Wortley.

Eating Words by Richard Nelson, from the Globe Theatre Season on Radio 4 and the World Service, 30/10/89, producer Ned Chaillet.

By Where the Old Shed Used to Be by Craig Warner, Drama Now 12/12/89, produced by Andy Jordan.

BRP89 Back

(The advantage of the hardback edition is you get pix of the writers on the back.)

Overall, the collection shows some falling off from previous editions.  There is something very 1980s and dated  about Eating Words and especially By Where the Old Shed Used to Be.  The Johnston monologue, on the other hand, was contemporary in 1989 – life in Northern Ireland after 20 years of the Troubles – but transcends its era because it is about character.   The Baby Buggy could be broadcast today.  We would be lucky to get a play as well written as The Stalin Sonata nowadays. Continue reading “Review – Best Radio Plays of 1989”