Shakespeare plays produced for the mass media tend to be studied as texts, in the larger context of television or filmed Shakespeare, and sometimes as part of the work of an auteur such as Kenneth Branagh or Laurence Olivier. It is rare to study mass media productions for what they tell us about the organization that created them. Such an approach can be of interest, as it is with the three radio series produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).
OSF is unusual in a number of ways. It is the longest-lived Shakespeare Festival in North America, producing its first two plays in 1935. OSF boasts of its outdoor stage designed to the dimensions of the Fortune Theatre contract in its backstage tours and publicity materials. In 1983, OSF became the first Shakespeare festival to win a Regional Tony Award. It is the only US Shakespeare festival to have a contract with an audio-book publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks’ Hamlet used most of the cast of OSF’s 2010 production. It was released in May 2011 and nominated for a Grammy Award, a unique honour. The Festival’s 2011 production of Measure for Measure is being recorded the week I write this and should be available by the time you read it. The Old Vic and OSF are the only Shakespeare companies to have had radio series.
The British Broadcasting Corporation’s first Shakespeare radio programme was on 16 February 1923. Since then, the Corporation’s output has been too vast, the numbers of people involved too large, and the variety of shows too varied for this article to give more than a sampling. We can see the broad outlines of this work by considering three carefully chosen directors whose Shakespeare productions seem intrinsically interesting, and noting the range of broadcasts they produced.
Critics have lately problematized an old and simple concept, that of retelling stories, in this case stories created for the stage retold on radio. Perhaps they are correct to do this, for adaptations take on different characteristics over time, in different media, at the hands of different adapters, and as Courtney Lehmann points out, there are vastly different degrees of adaptation. For the sake of simplicity, I mean here by adaptation what the BBC and its directors usually mean when they use the word: putting a more or less full-length Shakespeare play on the radio, with adjustments made for time and radio’s non-visual needs.
The BBC was the first to broadcast Shakespeare, and has done so more than anyone else. The US had several broadcasts in the nineteen twenties and two short Shakespeare series in the thirties, but the plays all but disappeared by the nineteen fifties, except for the annual broadcasts by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on the National Broadcasting Company and National Public Radio. Canada could boast of the first North American Shakespeare broadcast, and there were regular productions in the nineteen thirties, forties, fifties and nineties. Australia may be the first country to produce the canon as it was then constituted, which they did from 1936–8. These ninety-minute broadcasts had impressive ratings, but future shows were sporadic. The BBC has produced multiple Shakespeare broadcasts nearly every year since the beginning.
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