The (Audio) Play’s the Thing. Even Now.
I couldn’t sleep last night (which is nothing new) so I opted to try listening to some music. Usually in bed I use the CD player, so I don’t have to bother with headphones that the mp3 player requires. So I reached for my CD holder. But at the last second I decided to not go with music. I instead flipped to the back where I keep two CD copies of some old cassettes I’ve had since I was a child. The cassettes have great sentimental value, and are now quite rare from what I can tell online. So a few years ago I digitized them, so I’d at least always have the content.
The cassettes are of audio plays of a kind, about historical figures from American history. In this case, one tape was about the “life” of George Washington. The other tape contained the stories of Ben Franklin and Daniel Boone. Almost more suited for radio in the 1930’s, but captivating to my young imagination nonetheless. I would allow myself to travel by way of (overly?) dramatic incidental music, sound effects, and memorable subject matter back to the founding days of the nation to visit those I most admired as a child.
I’ve been a restless person with a curious, exploratory, and times wandering mind my entire live. Multiply that by being a kid who was awake when everyone else was asleep much of the time, and you get someone who didn’t rest as much as they should have on their own. So music helped me focus. Relax. Get lost in the sedate wonders of my subconscious, thereby opening the door at last to slumber. (Much to my kid sister’s annoyance at times, when we shared a bedroom.) Other times, these audio plays served the same purpose.
Last night I grabbed the George Washington one and played it as I sat there in the dark. In so doing I engaged in a process so deeply entwined with my formative years and beyond that if one could project a visual image of the deepest part of my psyche, one would probably see among the images a version of myself playing those tapes.
Not that this was the first time I had listened to one of these productions as an adult. Far, far from it. I’ve picked them up here and there to listen to for a few minutes over the years. I remember when I was sick in bed for two weeks with pneumonia as a senior in high school I listened to them in an attempt to relax a bit. It worked. They had, and continue to have a somewhat calming effect, I suppose. So much so, in fact, that is wasn’t even until high school that I ever heard the end of the George Washington tape; I had always fallen asleep before the end. How odd to hear something that old and that much a part of my childhood for the very first time. Even today I find the ending of that tape less enjoyable than the beginning, though there are other reasons for that I’ll mention later.
These audio productions held a dual fascination for me, though. There was the story and subject matter. But there was also the production itself. As a kid I remember trying to imagine where they were recorded, and the actors who played the roles. I could see them with the script in their hands in front of microphones reading their lines to one another inside some obscure hole in the wall studio somewhere. For some reason I always imagined them working at night, with few lights on in the studio, so as to enhance the story telling effect. I thought they were some kind of secret group of performers, since their names were not on the cassette or the packaging. I remember thinking how great it would be to be a part of making one of those plays myself for others to listen to. Given the resources I’d still like to produce an audio play like that, actually.
Some aspects of these plays hold up to both adulthood and to all of the years that have passed since the simpler time during which they were produced. A time that in many ways was more creative for kids. Back when attention spans would allow for even energetic children to sit or lay down for an hour or so and listen to a play. Then again, maybe no other children in the world but me did such things; I could believe that, frankly. Either way, some of it transcends the time and purpose of its creation, and can survive even my more mature theatrical/literary scrutiny should I choose to apply same.
Other aspects of it however, do not hold up, and it is only my deep sentimentality that allows me to continue appreciating them. To be more precise, the George Washington one is the weakest of the three presentations. Consider that it claims to be about his life, but skips decades at a time and ends with the conclusion of the Revolution, making no mention of his presidency. Granted, not every chapter of his life could be included in such a production, but even as a kid I thought that was a large chunk to leave out.
Especially when for about 15 minutes near the end of the presentation the script leaves Washington entirely to concentrate on two other historical figures of the same era, jumping from one into the other with virtually no segue whatsoever. Then again there may have been a better transition at one point in time; the entire thing feels like a longer production the fell victim to severe if not haphazard editing. Certain parts of narration fade out in the middle of a sentence and yield to something else. And the two narrators that had told the story for 90% of the cassette are suddenly replaced by a third narrator for one scene, who does not appear again afterward. (Jarring for a kid with as much attention to detail as me!) The regular narrators themselves play multiple parts within the narrative itself, as does the actor who plays Washington. As a child I didn’t notice this, but listening now it’s clear that one guy plays at least three different roles, one of them with an atrocious French accent. On at least one occasion, the incorrect name was used.
But these things don’t take away from it, despite the low production value. As a kid I did notice some of the flaws, but still enjoyed it. As an adult I notice all of the flaws, and still enjoy it. Truth be told in some ways I admire it more now, because I can sympathize with trying to produce something with no budget. Looking back on it now, it feels like it could have been a labor of love that well meaning but underpaid acting company with not enough time might have put together and produced the best they could out of someone’s basement. If they did so in the middle of the night, maybe my image from childhood about the creation of the tape wasn’t so far off after all.
The one about Ben Franklin is much better, as is the short one about Danial Boone tacked on at the end. Still simplistic, but with a tighter presentation and somewhat better acting. Certainly better editing. I’m not hear to do a product review, but the difference between the first tape and the second is palpable.
Whatever their issues, those plays, (which last about 45 minutes, but to a kid at bedtime seemed to last all night) have obviously done more than simply entertain and educate me. They inspired me. Focused me. Made me think about things beyond the here and now and made me think it was possible to produce that sort of effect on other people. It’s more than probably that those tapes, warts and all, planted both the seeds of writing and acting in my heart before I knew it was happening. It would not be silly to suggest that those audio plays are in large part responsible for who and what I am today.
Now if I could just find a copy of that third one I lost…