Tennyson and Edison on BBC Radio 3
BBC Radio 3, 3 June 2012
Set in 1889, Tennyson and Edison imagined a scenario where Thomas Edison (Toby Stephens) approached Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Richard Johnson), with a view to recording the great poet reading his work on the new phonograph. After undergoing considerable mental agonies, Tennyson eventully agreed to the proposal, recording "The Charge of the Light Brigade" for posterity.
Pownall's play examined the relationship between technology and memory. Throughout his life Tennyson had been haunted by the early death of his college friend Arthur Hallam (Carl Prekopp); now an old man of eighty-two, Tennyson still communicates mentally with the young man. With the onset of the phonograph, mere memories can be transformed into actual recordings: when Tennyson passes away, his voice will be preserved for posterity. However Tennyson does not like Edison's proposal very much: while memories are personal and imaginative, recordings are cold and impersonal.
On the other hand, Pownall showed how Tennyson had become quite literally "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought" for his dead friend. He came to rely almost totally on his son Hallam (Patrick Brennan) to organize his life for him; when Hallam decided to go on holiday, leaving Tennyson to deal with Edison himself, Tennyson was almost beside himself with worry. By accepting Edison's recording offer - and thereby thinking for himself - Tennyson made the first step towards exorcizing the memories from his mind, and thereby acquiring more self-determination.
Peter Kavanagh's production deliberately blurred the distinctions between life and death: both Hallam and Arthur spoke direct to listeners, conveying their thoughts about Tennyson. This strategy underlined the importance of recording technology; it could quite literally permit individuals to speak from the dead, as well as record their impressions during their lifetime.
While the subject-matter was undoubtedly serious, both Pownall and Kavanagh took the opportunity to make fun of cultural stereotypes. Tennyson came across as exaggeratedly British - the kind of person so devoted to tradition (as symbolized by Queen Victoria (Sian Thomas)) that he could not countenance anything technologically new. By contrast Edison appeared as a typically brash representative of the New World; dedicated to the future while claiming to preserve the past through his recordings.
I enjoyed Tennyson and Edison - especially the contrast between Johnson's frail-sounding yet determined Tennyson, and Stephens' go-getting Edison (using an accent strongly reminiscent of his Philip Marlowe in last year's Chandler cycle for Radio 4).