Sound Effects in Stoppard`s Radio Plays

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2000 16 Pages

English - Miscellaneous


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Sound Effects in Radio Plays

3. Stoppard’s Radio Plays
3.1 The Dissolution of Dominic Boot
3.2 ‘M’ is for Moon Among Other Things
3.3 If You’re Glad I’ll be Frank
3.4 Albert’s Bridge
3.5 Where Are They Now
3.6 Artist Descending a Staircase
3.7 The Dog It Was That Died
3.8 In the Native State

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction:

The radio play - for most literary scholars and critics it is only a ‘minor’ version of a stage play. The playwright of a radio play is supposed to be in search of a stage. On the other hand, a lot of very famous dramatists like Beckett, McLeish, Gilsdorf or Stoppard realised the uniqueness of the radio play early in their career. More than television or plays on stage, it provokes the imagination of the audience. And “the practical benefits of writing for radio are fairly obvious; it requires less time and money to produce for this medium than it does for the stage or screen, which in turn minimises the risk of financial or artistic failure (Kelly, p.440)”. A pioneer role in the promotion of the radio play as a distinct genre was performed by the British Broadcast Corporation. Concerning its characteristics the radio play can be placed somewhere between a narrative text and a stage play. Nevertheless, it has more in common with a novel than with a stage play. After the invention of the radio the first plays on air were plays that had been written for the stage. But it soon became clear that these were not suitable. Stage settings, stage directions and visual characterisation were too important. And on the radio it is impossible to set everything for the audience. The only way to produce images of the setting or characters in the audience’s heads is to use sound effects and verbal characterisation. The expression of ‘narrative indeterminacy’ plays an important role in a radio play. Although many plays work with a narrator (1st person narrator or 3rd person narrator) to introduce the audience to the setting or to describe the different characters, the audience usually has to put the puzzle together to construct the setting. The most common way to do this is to use prototypical themes, frames or scheme (e.g.: what is the first thing we do think of when we hear ‘iron bridge’ (Albert ’ s Bridge by Stoppard)? The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco) .

2. Sound Effects in Radio Plays

One way of producing those images in the audience’s heads and to use frames or themes is the use of sound effects. The problem is the definition of ‘sound effects’. In a radio play, everything is audible and nothing is visible. A. Frank lists eight elements (Bausteine) a radio play is made up of: word and voice, which can not be seen and six others, which, in a wider context, can be seen as sound effects. Those six are music, silence and pause, distance, radiophonic and technical effects, ‘Raumakustik’ (the acoustic in the room the play is recorded in) and sound in the background. The last of these six elements, the sound in the background, is usually called ‘sound effects’, but especially in Stoppard’s play the others take an important role. That is why I think it is necessary to use the wider definition in this paper. Music can be used to add structure to the play, for example instead of ‘curtain music’ during pauses between two scenes (bridge music), or as ‘mood music’ to express or emphasise atmosphere in a scene or as piece of scenery to show the audience where a scene takes place. Silence and pauses can be found in many different forms and varieties but the most important ones to produce an effect for the audience are the pauses creating suspense and the imaginative pause, which gives the audience the possibility to imagine a certain situation or create a picture. Distance, which means the distance for the recording microphone, is the only way to create a ‘3-D-image’ in a radio play. Radiophonic and technical effects mean the additional change of recorded material. Sounds in the background, the ‘original sound effects’, are sounds which are recorded in nature like wind, rain, traffic and many others, or which are created with cunning techniques. They can be used to create or emphasise the atmosphere (wind or rain in the background) or as action sounds (slamming door or steps on a wooden floor).

3. Stoppard’s Radio Plays

For Stoppard his radio plays played only a secondary role in his career as a playwright, but they helped him to accumulate experience for the writing of his stage plays. In radio plays it is important to “distinguish characters through voice and dialogue” (Kelly, p. 451) and they are very short compared to stage plays. Because the radio plays are so short, playwrights are forced to work very economically and to find simple stories and jokes to maintain the audience’s attention.

From 1964 to 1991 Stoppard wrote eight radio plays. He started very early in his career with The Dissolution of Dominic Boot and kept being very active in writing for radio until 1973 (Albert ’ s Bridge). Then he took a break from radio before in 1983 The Dog It Was That Died and in 1991 In the Native State were released.

3.1 The Dissolution of Dominic Boot (1964)

Stoppard wrote this radio play, and the one to follow ‘ M ’ is for Moon Among Other Things, for the series ‘ Just Before Midnight ’ in the third programme of the BBC in the sixties. Concerning the sound effects, Stoppard does not overload this play. Especially during the first years of the genre ‘radio play’ the background sound effects and action sounds had made many plays unclear and confusing because the plays had been overloaded. But in his plays Stoppard restricts himself to the important effects. His ‘stage’ directions include street traffic (p. 3, all following citations and page numbers from Stoppard, Tom: The Plays for Radio 1964-1991.Faber and Faber: London, 1994.), slamming and opening doors (p. 4, p.6), the counting of coins (p.4) or the sound of Dominic breaking open the gas meter (p.7). But the most important sound effect in this play is the large number of quick cuts between the Bank and other locations on one side an the taxi on the other. The audience does not have the possibility to take a breather. And this is exactly the same situation Dominic is in. It represents the stressful and chaotic life of Dominic which leads him into his breakdown in the end. One direction Stoppard gives in his script is worth a closer look. On page seven one can see the thoughts of Dominic (“Is everyone mad?’). For the director of the play it can be very difficult to put this into action. What is the best way to convey a precise picture of someone’s thoughts only by sound? Is it better to use a new voice or to introduce a narrator to tell the audience about these thoughts? Stoppard leaves this in the hands of the director.

3.2 ‘M’ is for Moon Among Other Things (1964)

In his second radio play the problem of how to make dreams and thoughts comprehensible for the listener becomes even bigger. Whole sentences of those thought mix with spoken words (p.15). Yet another problem is the introduction of radio plays to introduce the characters and the setting. Is it to be spoken by a narrator? But there are also other, more precise directions for sound effects, for example the shaking of Alfred’s newspaper, the flipping over the pages of Constance’s book (both p.15) or the hall clock chiming ten. A very interesting sound effect is the use of old television recordings to show the time the play takes place. First there is the finish of the TV programme ‘Dial M for the Murder’ (p.17), which is also an introduction to the weird ‘M’ alliteration in the end (p.21), then the audience hears the opening of the 10.05 pm news recorded on the 5th of August 1962 with the headline of Marilyn Monroe’s death (p.17).

3.3 If You’re Glad, I’ll be Frank (1966)

In Stoppard’s third radio play If You ’ re Glad I ’ ll be Frank the audience soon notices that the setting is in Britain. Stoppard introduces a voice which is known by everyone in Britain, the TIM voice. It does not matter whether the speaker of Gladys actually is the same as the TIM speaker or not (which is more likely), a British audience will certainly realise it. Another hint that the play takes place in Britain (and in London) and Stoppard not only uses in If You ’ re Glad, I ’ ll be Frank but also in The Dog It Was That Died, is the sound of Big Ben. Time is the central part of the play and it is omnipresent. Gladys’ spoken thoughts are interrupted either by her own voice as the speaking clock and the ‘pieps’ or by the sound of a time clock. The difference between her thoughts and the voice of the speaking clock without problems the audience will notice because her ‘thought voice’ seems to be ‘live’ and her TIM voice seems to be recorded. When Frank appears in the play he is always in a hurry and time speeds up compared to Gladys’ parts. He stops the bus, opens the door, slams it and runs across the pavement and is always breathless (p.39, two times). Another important aspect in the play is the telephone because it is the only way for Frank to communicate with Gladys. Phones ring (different ringing sounds?), people talk through the phone and Frank dials TIM, which means that he dials the numbers of the same push-button the letter is written on or he does the same with a dial (TIM=846). The second possibility is more likely because in 1966 there were no push-button phones. Because everyone in Britain knows TIM, everyone notices that Frank dials the number of the speaking clock because of the length of every figure. A very challenging sound effect for every director is the repeated opening and closing of the door in the beginning of the play (p.26-27). First the setting is outside, there is the sound of traffic and Big Ben strikes 9 o’clock. After this, when the setting changes to the interior, there are no more traffic sounds and Big Ben is fainter. Every time the outside door (in fact there are two door being arranged like a sluice) is being opened, the outside sounds intensify. All this happens in a very short period of time which makes it hard to put into practice.

3.4 Albert’s Bridge (1968)

This play starts with a perfect example for the use of distance from the microphone to suggest spatial arrangement. Four painters are involved and they are just about to finish their day’s work. Stoppard places them vertically spread out on the bridge and places the microphone right beside the one on the top (who is Albert). The painter closest to the ground and is the most farthest from the microphone speaks first, then the second lowest, then the third and at last we hear Albert singing (p.53). Another example for the importance of distance is the train which is first heard using the horn far away and then comes closer and closer (p.56). Music is also present in Albert’s Bridge. On one hand there is Albert’s singing (p.53 ‘How high is the moon in June?; p. 75 ‘Night and Day’) to express his mood (‘mood music’), on the other hand there is music as part of the scenery with the Cliché French accordion music (p.73). The line between the interior and the exterior setting is perfectly drawn by the omnipresent wind when Albert is on the bridge. Even in Paris when he climbs the Eiffel Tower this wind can be heard. Stoppard uses an interesting ‘sound effect’ on page 71. Albert is sitting on the bridge and only the wind can be heard. Then Albert starts to talk about many different sounds which are all far away down in Clufton. Engines, screams, laughter, feet on the stairs, radios, tapes and many more. But up on the bridge everything is reduced to a hum which sounds like an insect or a hairdryer in the room below. The audience’s imagination is being stimulated here. While Albert describes all theses sounds the audience tries to imagine what they sound like originally and wonder how high Albert must be on the bridge to have such a reduced conception of what is going on down below. One way to describe what people are doing in a radio play is to make them annotate exactly this. Stoppard succeeds in doing this in Albert’s Bridge when he lets Albert tell the audience about every action or movement he makes when painting. ‘Dip, brush, slap, slide, slick’ (p.54) is the only thing one needs to hear to know that he is painting. The sound and the theme of painting, by the way, is important in other radio plays by Stoppard as well (Artist Descending a Staircase or In the Native State). On the other hand, I listened to a taped version of ‘Albert’s Bridge’ and it was hardly possible to hear Albert painting. In this version the wind on the bridge was too loud and totally cluttered the sound of painting. The only exception was when Albert started to paint more rapidly after he noticed that he was not capable of finishing the job and Fitch told him that the next day hundreds of new painters would arrive. Other sound effects like the jumping down onto the gravel (p.56), the crying baby (p.67), the baby’s rattle in the background (p.71), the sound of crockery breaking on the wall (p.74) and many more were realised much more professionally. At the end of the play it once more becomes difficult for the director. The sound of 1.800 men marching and whistling ‘Colonel Bogey’ is the smallest problem. But how is it possible to realise the following ‘stage’ direction by Stoppard: ‘This is difficult; as the front rank reaches the bridge, the tramp-tramp of the march should start to ring hollow, progressively, as more and more leave terra firma and reach the bridge.’(p.85)

I do not know how, but the director(s) of the cassette recording I heard managed to make this sound very realistic.

3.5 Where Are They Now? (1970)

Already Stoppard’s introducing comment or direction gives the reader of his written edition an idea how the sudden changes between two different times and settings (present time and flashbacks) will works during the play. He explains that the scenes should move between the two settings ‘without using any of the familiar grammar of fading down and fading up; the action is continuous.’ (p.89). K. Kelly points out that ‘as in his stage plays, Stoppard will cut the unnecessary break of illusion if it can be accomplished by language or voice. Eliminating the conventional fade intensifies the action and creates an edge of surprise that Stoppard exploits in tandem with his theme of remembrance’ (Kelly, p.445). Apart from this extraordinary direction Where Are They Now does not have many instructions for sound effects, only the headmaster’s gavel bangs (p.92, p.102), the scrapes and murmurs that die down after the old boys take their places (p.91) and the piano music at the end of the play. Someone starts playing the tune of ‘Men of Harlech’ but after Jenkins has started to sing a solo the piano falters and dies. Then they all together start to sing the right song, ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. During this second song there the first cross-fade into the past and for the first time the setting is outside a house. Gale is supposed to be on an open windy field, playing some sort of game. Where Are They Now is a play that does not need a lot of sound effects. More important is the construction of the play with the clashing of two plots and the problems to discover Mr. Jenkins’ mistake of mixing the Hove’s banquet with the Oakleigh’s and the identity of the Marx Brothers (who is who?).

3.6 Artist Descending a Staircase (1972)

After Stoppard had noticed that two of his plays, If you ’ re Glad I ’ ll be Frank and Albert ’ s Bridge had been adapted for the stage, he decided to try to write a radio play which was definately not suitable for the stage. The result was Artist Descending a Staircase, for many critics Stoppard’s masterpiece concerning radio plays. The key role of the play is a ‘tape gag’. The first thing the audience hears is a continuous loop tape which is to be interpreted by two of the protagonists of the play, Martello and Beauchamp. Because the listener of the play does not know any more than the people ‘inside’ the play, he or she has the same problem understanding what happens on the loop tape. Even for the readers of the written version of the play Stoppard includes bewildering hints to lead them astray. The irregular droning sound which in the end (p.156) turns out to be a fly’s droning, he describes as Donner’s dozing (p113). Then footsteps approach. After this the droning stops, in fact the fly settles, and in the introducing loop of tape Stoppard makes Donner wake up. Then the footsteps freeze. In the last scene of the play it becomes clear that it must have been Donner’s own footsteps while he was hunting the fly. In the last scene Beauchamp takes over Donner’s part of saying ‘Ah, there you are...’, and the same thing happens with the last quick two steps and the ‘Thump’. This ‘Thump’ finishes the last scene and leaves the audience in lack of knowledge whether Martello and Beauchamp finally noticed what really happened to Donner during and after the hunting of the fly. After his previous play Where Are They Now had only had few sound effects and no fades between the different scene, Stoppard uses a lot more effects in Artist Descending a Staircase. In Where Are We Now temporal shifts are only noticeable because of the change from juvenile to adult voices and back. These shifts are even more concluded in Artist Descending a Staircase. The whole play consists of an accurately structured ‘time loop’ which starts in the present and goes back in five flashback stages until the year 1914. Every one of these five flashbacks is introduced and marked by a special sound effect. The first flashback goes back a couple of hours and starts with the sound of Beauchamp’s ‘master-tape’ which consists of ‘a bubbling cauldron of squeaks, gurgles, crackles, and other unharmonious noises. He allows it to play for longer than one would reasonably hope (p.119)’. Other sound effects in this flashback are - and this applies to the whole play - the returning sound of a fly and the sound of trying to hunt and kill this fly. The second flashback goes back about a week and begins with the sound of Martello scraping and chipping a huge ‘sugar cube’ to make a statue out of it. The statue is ‘metaphorically’ (Martello, p.129) supposed to be Sophie. This fact drives Donner furious and he lashes out wildly all around him. He hits the statue and knocks out one of the teeth which in fact are pearls. This is being repeated and both times the pearl(s) can be heard bouncing on the floor. At the end of the first part of the second flashback (all flashback have a second part later), when Donner is gasping, cliché Paris accordion music begins to fade in. Stoppard also used this sound effect in Albert’s Bridge when Albert’s family was in Paris. Here the audience does not exactly know whether the setting is in Paris. In the beginning of the third flashback (back to 1922) when Sophie talks about not being sorry to leave Lambeth (a district of London), the description of the setting seems to fit the cliché of Paris with the river Seine smelling like a dead cat and the accordion player who is still being heard in the background and appears again later. Later the audience also gets aware of the fact that Sophie is moving from one part of London (Lambeth) to another (Chelsea) and Beauchamps and Martello are helping her. Suitcases are being snapped shut and strapped up several times (e.g.: p.130). This third flashback is the first one that goes far back into the past. The audience soon notices this because of the different, now young, voices of the protagonists. The next flashback (back to 1920) starts with a sound effect Stoppard uses several times in the play. Martello and Sophie are climbing stairs (p.135). In the next few lines Stoppard again plays with the ‘blindness’ of the audience who are in the same situation as Sophie. From the beginning, when Martello and Sophie walk upstairs and Martello desribes to her what the room looks like and how many steps there are left to climb, the audience hears the sound of a ping-pong game in progress. After Martello has opened the door the sound becomes louder and seems to be very realistic because Sophie thinks that there really is somebody playing ping-pong. She comments a winning shot (‘Good shot’; p.135) and after the ball has hit the net and bounces on the table she is disappointed. For the director of the play the realistic ping-pong game must be a difficult part to manage, especially the timing. For both, Sophie and the audience, it does not become clear that it again is a tape recording by Beauchamp until Martello tell Beauchamp to turn the tape deck off. Other sound effects in this flashback play with the ‘blindness’ of the audience as well, for example when Martello asks Sophie whether what she hears is a two-wheeled or a four-wheeled carriage (p.143). The audience is forced to do the same as Sophie, to guess what it is. And would anyone of in audience ever guess that it is a brewer’s dray? Sophie does! This fact makes it clear to the listener of the play that Sophie, due to her blindness, is forced to and used to receive only audible information. The next (and last) flashback leads the three men back to the year 1914. It starts with the sound of Beauchamp’s ‘horse’ and again with flies buzzing. In terms of sound effects, the following pages are characterised by the constant hunting of the flies and the question whether the horse really is a horse. It is up to the director of the play whether he or she uses a recording that sounds more like a real horse or a recording of coconut shells clapped together. Stoppard never tells the reader of the written version word- for-word that it is no horse, therefore the reader needs to read between the lines. This sound effect of a walking horse produced by coconut shells was later used by the English comedian group Monty Python in their film The Holy Grail, too. Later, in the last flashback horses appear again when ‘a squadron of Cavalry gallops in quickly to occupy the foreground with a thunder of hooves’ (p.147). It becomes clear that the three are in the middle of France during the Great War. This is made audible by a convoy of rattletrap lorries which clutters everything else (p.145) and different explosions. Stoppard uses sound effects to introduce the flashbacks in the same was as he uses them to finish them or, to be precise, to return to the previous flashback. He returns to the ‘1920-flashback’ with ‘the three young men...chanting out directions, sometimes in unison, sometimes just one or two voices’ (p.149). The three men play a game with Sophie who is supposed to be walking around in a room to return to the same point she started from and sit down on a chair. Once again the audience tries to put themselves into Sophie’s position. The next flashback (1922) again begins with faint accordion music (p.151). There are steps descending the stairs and getting fainter until the front door slams. After the steps have disappeared there is only the faint accordion audible and Sophie talking to Donner who is not there. When she notices this she panics, loses control and falls out of the window. Glass breaks, wood smashes and we hear her body hitting the floor (p.152). To return to the next flashback Stoppard does not need a special sound effect because it is clear that Martello and Donner talk about what happened to Sophie years before. The next flashback again starts with a ‘Smack’ and in the end there is a transition to the ‘Donner Tape’ which started the whole play. Finally the ‘loop’ of the play with all its flashbacks is closed and Martello and Beauchamp only have to realise that what they hear while hunting the fly is exactly what Donner’s action sounded like on the tape; but without them falling down the stairs.

3.7 The Dog It Was That Died (1982)

After Albert’s Bridge Stoppard took a longer break from the radio until The Dog It Was That Died was published in 1982. ‘His interest in exploiting the purely auditory riches of the radio has resulted in another presumably ‘unstageable’ play’ (Kelly, p.448). The most important aspect concerning the sound effects is the play is the repeated change of the setting from interior to exterior. With one exception (p.175) this change happens between the different scenes. On the one hand the changes on the one hand can be noticed because of the ‘Raumakustik’ (see above, p.4) and because of the surrounding noises on the other. Footsteps on the pavement (p.159) or on gravel (p.175), the sound of Big Ben (p.160, p.170), a car arriving on gravel, or a motormower in the background (both p.172) show that the setting is outside. The tick-tock of clocks (p.168) and their chiming and striking, or the galloping down the stairs (p.177) represent the interior. For the story itself the sound effects in The Dog It Was That Died are not essential but without them, of course, it would not work eighter.

3.8 In the Native State (1991)

In the Native State is the only radio play Stoppard change into a stage play later (Indian Ink, 1995). It is interesting to see how the ‘stage’ directions differ. While in the radio play Stoppard describes how the city of Jummapur is supposed to sound (ambient sound would not be urban, a lot of animal sounds, the surround of the verandah sandy and not metalled, all p.199), he describes the setting in the direction for the stage play. On the verandah there is a small table with at least two chairs. In addition there are an electric light and an oil lamp. All this is impossible in radio play because the audience is incapable to see the surrounding. There are a lot of sound effects in In the Native State, for example music, animal noises, cars, tea being served or pouring water..., but some deserve a closer look. In scene seven (p.218) Das and Nazrul speak in Urdu. The problem is how to make the audience understand the information because hardly anybody is able to understand Urdu. It might be possible to give the audience a translation after the two have finished. But this would interrupt the plot. Another possibility is to tell the listener with a short comment that the following discourse normally would be in Urdu but to make the two speak in English. But Stoppard chooses a third possibility. After the two men finished their conversation Das translates to Flora what they had talked about. Another interesting direction is the one Stoppard gives for the voice of Pike, ‘which does sound rather like Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind...’ (p.226). Another effect appears when Flora reads out one of her letters and becomes a narrator because ‘the appropriate sound effects creep in to illustrate Flora’s letter.’ (p.227). These illustrating sound effects are the sound of a slow steam train, the hubbub of the station, the steps of a horse and many more. ‘In general, Flora’s letter becomes an immediate presence - we can hear her pen scratching now and then, and insects, distant life, etc. - but when her letter takes us into an event, the sound-plot turns into the appropriate accompaniment’ (p.227). The following passage is a mixture of writing a letter, reading out a letter and a sound-plot which is ’live’.

4. Conclusion

Although I have mentioned before that in Stoppard’s radio plays there is no overloading with sound effects, it is important to see that some plays do have more and some have less of those effects. Stoppard uses a lot of colloquial sound effect like slamming doors, moving cars, blowing wind and many more. But he invents very special and perfectly plot fitting effects, too. Sometimes he gives the directors a hard time when he forces them to put his ‘audio’ direction into practice. I agree with most critics that Artist Descending a Staircase is Stoppard’s master piece concerning his radio plays. Here sound effect is used as the frame story for the play: This is perfect for a radio play

5. Bibliography:

Primary Literature:

- Stoppard, Tom. The Plays for Radio 1964-1991. London: Faber and Faber , 1994

- Stoppard, Tom. Indian Ink. London: Faber and Faber, 1995

Secondary Literature:

- Delaney, Paul (editor). Tom Stoppard in Conversation. The University of Michigan Press,


- Frank, Armin P. Das englische und amerikanische Hörspiel. UTB 1073. Munich:

Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1981

- Guralnick, Elissa S. ‘‘Artist Descending a Staircase: Stoppard Captures the Radio Station

- and Duchamp‘‘. Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA) 105.2 (1990): 286-300

- Kelly, Katherine E. ‘‘Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase: Outgoing the ‘Dada‘

Duchamp‘‘. Comparative Drama 20.3 (1986): 191-200

- Kelly, Katherine E. ‘‘Tom Stoppard Radioactive: A Sounding of the Radio Plays‘‘.

Comparative Drama 32.3 (1989): 440-452



File size
357 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Freiburg
Sound Effects Stoppard`s Radio Plays




Title: Sound Effects in Stoppard`s Radio Plays