From Our Authors | August 11, 2016

Today, the Missouri Review presents our seventh installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by David Zane Mairowitz, whose story “Greek Tragedy” appeared in our Spring 2016 issue. 

Efficiency: Short Story Meets Radio Drama

This summer will mark fifty years since I went permanently transatlantic (west-east) on the SS United States, (most likely crossing the specters of my Polish families coming in the opposite direction some fifty years earlier), carrying precious little in my cultural baggage–at most, peanut butter, baseball, the short story. With great suffering, in my self-willed exile, I might learn to fend without the first two, but never the third.

I have always earned my living from my writing but would be willing to starve and do little else but create stories and be remunerated in crumbs, if that were the case. I simply lack the craft or the staying power to go the whole hog into novel territory, but I’m comfortable and fully at home in the short form. To extend one of my opening points into metaphor, I’m not a long-ball hitter and get quickly winded rounding the bases, but over the years I’ve taught myself to perfect and execute the bunt.

Some thirty years ago, however, I stumbled on a literary form which I’ve managed to turn into my central occupation, one which will probably seem odd and almost science fictional to most Americans–the radio drama. Yes, this peculiar breed, once also a staple of U.S. broadcasting, then rendered defunct (with some erratic exceptions) first in the days of the blacklist and then television, still thrives in many European countries, chiefly Germany, but also England, Switzerland, France, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, etc. We’re talking about millions of listeners, literally, not an esoteric minority. I write and direct radio dramas in all these countries.

Which brings me full circle to the short story. Although a radio drama (average length these days forty-five to sixty minutes) is meant to be as comprehensive as a full-length stage play or feature movie, telling a coherent story from start to finish, the constraints of radio bring it closer for me to the size and outlook of the short story.

Writing for radio brings the toughest lessons in economy I know. Because there is no image to distract the listener and allow his brain to wander, thereby relaxing and extending his subjective time, and because the listener’s mind is called on to do half the mental work (the creation of images provoked by sound), everything which happens in radio is in real time and exceedingly swift. You cannot (dare not) overextend the capacity for listening with excess or the listener will literally switch off. There is an old tendency in many countries to equate radio drama with theatre, but the former simply does not have the luxury of time squandering, and is a much closer cousin to the cinema in its rapidity of sequence and editing.

And this is where it meets the short story. Neither of these forms is “limited” for me, while I consider a “short short story” or a fifteen-minute radio drama (not to be equated with a one-act play, by the way) anecdotal. These are clever tactical maneuvers with their own parameters, if you like, squeeze bunts with no more than sacrificial intention. On the other hand, a radio drama of fifty minutes, like a fair-sized short story, encompasses an entire narrative universe and requires only structural, but not substance-related compromises. Like a successful short story, it relies on efficiency and swiftness to produce an emotional power overstepping its short structural boundaries.

The key to this is what is called dramaturgy. If the compactness of radio drama has taught me anything over the years, it is that a lot of contemporary fiction, many fine movies and a great deal of drama are lacking in… drama. This is not to drop a value judgment here, but just to re-recognize that storytelling without strong dramaturgy, without twists and turns, without surprise and, above all, dramatic deception is somehow missing an essential cylinder.

I’ve managed, over the years, to adapt quite a few of my short stories into radio plays, where the fit in terms of size, i.e., internal time, is usually perfect. A limited number of characters (in radio, overstep this restraint at your peril!), although not a reduced geography (in comparison to theatre, the sky’s the limit), a psychological perspective which fifty minutes can accommodate. In contrast, I’ve adapted Melville, Kafka, Camus novels for radio, but these require much more radio time (usually in serial form) and always lose something essential in the squeezing down. Of course, radio also relies on a modicum of narration which helps the transition from prose, but (for me) there’s nothing more boring than soundwork which talks endlessly without sufficient acoustic change, and (private value judgment!) I cannot for the life of me fathom why anyone (aside from a blind person, for obvious reasons) would want to lend his ears to what is politely known as an “audiobook.”

By far the most successful radio form (with the public, including downloads) is what the Germans call Der Krimi, the French le polar, the detective/criminal/thriller drama. My own version has had a (so far) ten-year run on the German radio circuit and concerns Detective Marlov, the only private gumshoe tolerated in the former Soviet Union. With openhearted homage to R. Chandler, for me personally teacher-supreme in both the art of economy and dramaturgy. And whose dialogue as well as narration sound as if they were written in the era of (which they were) and for (which they weren’t in the first instance) radio.
David Zane Mairowitz is an author/ playwright/ radio director. He lives currently in Berlin and in Avignon in the south of France. He is the most produced author of radio dramas in Europe. His short story “Hector Composes a Circular Letter to His Friends to Announce His Survival of an Earthquake, 7.8 on the Richter Scale” won a Pushcart Prize for the Missouri Review.