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Radio review: He Do The Waste Land in Different Voices and In Dark Corners

15 July 2022


He Do The Waste Land in Different Voices (Radio 3, Sunday) prompted renewed engagement with T. S. Eliot’s famous poem

He Do The Waste Land in Different Voices (Radio 3, Sunday) prompted renewed engagement with T. S. Eliot’s famous poem

THE BBC made its first radio broadcast on 14 November 1922. The Waste Land was published in the magazine The Criterion the next month. Just as broadcasting technology has developed, so has our reading of T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece.

In the new, binaural production for Radio 3’s Drama strand (Sunday), He Do The Waste Land in Different Voices, voices appear and disintegrate in any part of the complex, 360° auditory scene. Radio has become the ideal medium for a poem in which voices jostle for attention; and, to underline the conceit, Caroline Raphael’s presentation includes the crackle and hiss of an analogue radio.

This works as a prompt to renewed engagement by those who first encountered the poem when they were in the throes of adolescent angst — such as Professor Stephen Connor, a contributor to the discussion that prefaced this broadcast. He reminded us that The Waste Land was not merely a whinge at the state of the world, but an expression of a universal condition, albeit localised in the particular circumstances of Eliot’s life.

This is a poem as much about Eliot, his relationship with his first wife, and his breakdown and recuperation as about the stultifying culture of post-First World War Britain. Given this, one might question whether the casting of different actors to voice parts of the poem is, in fact, the most appropriate strategy.

Just as all characters in a dream arise, ultimately, from the unconscious of the dreamer alone, so all the voices in The Waste Land have a single source. The original title of the poem — “He do the police in different voices” — refers to the character Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend, who has a talent for enlivening readings from the newspaper: but it is worth remembering that the different voices emanate from the same person. The Waste Land similarly exploits the varied registers that we all employ in our daily lives.

Over three episodes, the journalist Alex Renton has given an excoriating account of abuse in Britain’s boarding schools. In Dark Corners (Radio 4 FM, 17 and 24 June, and 1 July; series available on BBC Sounds) is difficult listening. The tales of sexual violence and of complacency and collusion are as disturbing as anything that we have heard from other institutions; the fact that certain alleged perpetrators still evade justice is shameful.

The programme makes much of the culture of “class, power, and privilege” in which these schools operate — schools that have educated Prime Ministers and members of the royal family — and hints at some great foundational sin that determines this relationship between educational privilege, power, and pederasty. In this respect, the programme does not make its case; nor does it earn the right to talk of “boarding-school survivors” as if attendance at such a school is, in itself, a trauma. Without such an analysis, the “bad apple” defence will endure.

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