The first radio broadcast happened on Aug. 31, 1920. And with that new medium, live entertainment went from being restricted to theater stages to an entity that could be performed in network studios and transmitted to vast numbers of listeners during the broadcast. I say listeners, but in truth, consumer is the better word. Radio was a big moment, much bigger in my view than the first silent films, which had been around since the turn of the 20th century.
The first “talkie” — THE JAZZ SINGER — came along in 1927, and again, all forms of live entertainment, even radio, had a new kid on the block with which to contend.
It’s not a coincidence that the 1930s gave American culture its golden age in the realm of literature and art, as well as the embryonic stages of the newest and most accessible creative form — the motion picture. But the process to make a film hinged on the well-established arena of the novel. First, someone wrote a story; then someone else wrote that same story for the screen, and sometimes, both stories resembled each other. Often not, however.
My belief is that the better films were always made from the novels that were written as novels, without the author thinking ahead as to how the story in print would translate to the action on the screen.
Meanwhile, countless motion pictures were being made using well-known classic plots, and Shakespeare was no exception. Silent Shakespeare films, for instance, are beyond illogical, and yet, eerily compelling. It’s like taking the Cliff Notes version and then tweeting the action.
The novel, the classic play, and the occasional original idea could live in harmony as they waited in movie green light limbo in the 1940s. Meanwhile, radio provided entertainment of shorter duration with a broader appeal. Imagine the oft-repeated scene of the family gathered around the radio to listen to the next episode of GUNSMOKE or THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM — foreshadowing now when families gather to watch, for instance, HOMELAND or BREAKING BAD.
The film and radio industries, hampered but never extinguished “live” entertainment on stage — an art form that has survived virtually every technological assault since the 16th century. Can’t say the same for lute players or ventriloquists.
TV, however, changed many things. Although invented in the late 1920s, it wasn’t until 1948 that the first network television began in the United States. And radio — particularly in terms of dramatic presentations — became the most obvious victim of TV. And with radio came another casualty: the average reading level.
Each technological “advance” helped diminish reading as the first choice in the manner in which to obtain one of our basic needs — the story. We need stories perhaps as much as we need our dreams; in fact, they are often the same. But our subconscious doesn’t really care how or from where we “get” the story, just that we get it. TV was far easier than reading, and quicker, and even better, new.
But the biggest game changer of all — ever — in the realm of focus has been the internet.
Long before the internet, the average reading level had dipped each year since TV came along, but when the web arrived, linear thinking changed forever. It wasn't long, for instance, before GPS and Smart Phones grabbed civilization by its collective thumb. Amazing how powerful technology has become. Sure, it's fast and efficient. We can video conference someone in Fiji as if they were next door. Instant Karma, indeed. And that's all terrific.
But in the midst of the "ease" of technology, plenty of traps lurk like highwaymen waiting their moment, and in my opinion, the most sinister of those gambits involves attention span. When people are used to interacting with a maximum of 140 characters — by necessity a new acronymic language evolves. Nothing at all "wrong" with that, but eventually, haiku communicating takes its toll.
Reading actual sentences, for example, becomes a task. Reading an entire magazine article turns into an uphill Everest undertaking, while actually sitting still to read a book — with the understanding that it will be a process of some undertaking — seems as possible and as likely as a cow jumping over the moon.
And yet, words continue and will always continue. As does our shared need to listen and to actually hear how those words, used by masters, shape our view of reality, and just as importantly, ourselves.
Live theatre is more than a performance; it’s a tribute to resilience. You can’t tweet JULIUS CAESAR any more effectively than you can watch LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on an iPhone.
Sure, you can do that, but like homemade bread, it’s better to go old school.