Friday, March 17, 2017

The Power of Radio: H. G. Wells' THE WAR OF THE WORKDS

Radio drama within the United Kingdom continues to flourish, despite being largely neglected by the mainstream media, both in print sand online  Apart from a few paragraphs in weekly radio columns, there is not much to read.

This oversight seems a terrible shame, given that radio drama adaptations can provide critical insights that the visual media can only dream about.

Such was the case with Melissa Murray's dramatization of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, a two-parter broadcast on 4 and 11 March 2017.  There were no fancy special effects: instead the Martians' presence was signaled by an ominous-sounding hum forming a backdrop to the action.  Director Marc Beeby was far more concerned with the effect of the catastrophe on humanity.  Robert Fenton (Blake Ritson) began the adaptation  as a confident, well-ınformed scientist determined to root out the aliens and save the country.  By the end, he had been reduced into a gibbering wreck, because of the sheer strain of trying - and failing - to accomplish his quest.

Beeby communicated his state of mind through an ingenious process of sonic layering.  As he talked about his state of mind in a series of lengthy speeches, we could hear the hum of the Martians, the strangled screams of their human victims, together with the squelching sound of Fenton's boots on the saturated ground.

Thematically speaking the production looked both backwards and fıorwards into history.  As the Martians overran a small village - sıgnaled through muffled screams coupled with Fenton's observations to the listeners - we realize that the Victorian world of security and order had collapsed.  No one knew what to look forward to in a world dominated by superior beings who treated humanity as food and caught them in large nets before eating them.

Yet Beeby suggested that this was actually the fault of humanity itself.  They had happily existed in a colonial world, treating other peoples with as much contempt as the Martians were treating them.  Now the British were experiencing their comeuppance as they were the victims of a cannibal-like race of übermenschen.  The Nietszchıan reference was palpable.  We felt distinctly uncomfortable, as we realized that what the United States has been recently doing, in terms of restricting immigration, is precisely what the British were doing over a century and a half ago.  Perhaps the American government ought to watch out in case they suffer a ssimilar fate.

This theme was played out purely through sound and dialogue: the mounting hysteria of Fenton contrasted with Billy's (Samuel James') insouciance in the face of catastrophe.  Billy seemed perfectly willing to embrace dystopia, in the belief that its presence was inevitable and could not be removed.

Although the Martiand eventually departed, they left a world that could never be the same.  Deprived of its self-respect, its pride, and even its place-names, it was a place that no one respected.  Fenton discovered this to his cost as he returned home to find his wife Margaret (Sanchia McCormack) pottering about their house as if nothing had happened.  In true British fashion, she had simply suppressed the past and resolve to live a Voltairean life cultivating her own garden, paying no attention to the outside world.

With no gargantuan special effects and minimal use of music, Beeby's adaptation underlined the power of the human voice to communicate the theme of the novel.  This was a psychological/ historical drama rather than science fiction, revealing more about the source-text than I ever could have imagined.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

THE GREAT GATSBY = A Study in Undergraduate Adaptation

Two weeks ago I have a paper via Skype to a conference in Croatia, an experience that gave me the chance to practice what I preach in pedagogical terms.  I talked about my classes in adaptation studies, their purpose and their stated outcomes designed to benefit learners and educators alike.
Four days later I resumed my teaching duties at Başkent.  I have been only one course to teach to allow me time to recover from the series of illnesses I’ve experienced this winter, including a lung infection, a third recurrence of my thyroid cancer, two detached retinas and the removal of two rotten teeth. After that lot, I have to admit that I was apprehensive of entering the classroom once more.  My voice has improved, but I now have to wear eyeglasses, both for reading and seeing in the distance.  This is the first time I have ever worn them in my life.  I also walk a little slower to build up muscles in my legs that were wasted during hospitalization.  For the first time ever I now realize that I’m aging; in two years I will reach my seventh decade.
As I went into the class for the first time, I was genuinely scared.  I was no longer the loud-voiced, charismatic figure of old, but someone who needed the learners’ support to make the class work.  When I talked about collaboration in my Croatia talk, I never realized just how important this would be in the future.  Now I could not see the learners’ faces without my distance glasses, and I must have looked a little wizened to them.
An adaptational process had taken place, but one that was not of my own or the learners’ making, especially as I no longer possessed the vocal strength to teach without a portable microphone.  For the first ten minutes of the first lesson, myself and the learners regarded one another with a kind of benevolent suspicion; I had taught them before when they were freshmen and women, but I wasn’t the same person any more.  Then the atmosphere changed: I asked the learners to do a warm-up activity prior to their studying Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, and they set about constructing a role-play with relish.  Dividing themselves into small groups of four – without my asking them to – they found copies of the text on their smartphones and began to discuss what to do.
I was quite simply blown away.  I had taught this group for their entire first year, and they had been noticeably reluctant to do any role-play or dramatic activities, or to engage in independent work through group interaction.  Now they were happily chattering away amongst one another, apparently oblivious to my presence.  I could circulate round the classroom and speak to them in a quiet voice (I can’t speak any other way without a microphone), offering suggestions when called for.  It was as if they had understood my physical limitations while trying to provide spaces for me to communicate.  The preparation for the role-play went on and on – for thirty minutes at least – before they all announced that they were ready to perform.
I watched as they improvised various situations, using their coats, books and bags for various dramatic purposes.  This was truly theater based on the “two planks and a passion” principle, where no props are required except the most basic elements, and enthusiasm helps us forget the performance’s shortcomings.  To say they were enthusiastic is an understatement; they went about their tasks with relish, while the learners in the audience offered moral support through laughter and by taking photographs and/or films on their smartphones.  The class-time sped by, and by the end the learners were filing out of the room chattering eagerly amongst themselves, while I was left in a state of euphoria, wondering what on earth I had just experienced.
My language might be slightly hyperbolic, but the experience was quite unlike anything I had known before in a lengthy teaching career.  The learners had quite literally looked after me, by making sure I was sufficiently entertained by their role-plays while ensuring that I did not have to talk too much.  We talk blithely of “learner-centered” teaching, but for me this class had been a classic example of “flipping” – turning the lesson over to the leaners = with minimum educator input.  I realized just how much learners could construct classes on their own, and in the process acquire an enhanced understanding of the power of negotiation and collaboration.
The same phenomenon has resurfaced in the last two classes with the same group.  Today they decided to draw pictures of scenes from Gatsby, and use the experience to construct their own dramas depicting the brittle relationship between Tom and Daisy Buchanan, which for them had distinct echoes of the soap-operas that dominate local television.
How can we assess this kind of learning?  I constantly read articles about the standardization of education, with assessment procedures dominated by figures and league tables.  I make no apologies for being quixotic, but I believe what we have done in class promotes the kind of engagement, learning, and adaptation that no exam-based program could provide.  So there.
                                                                                                          Laurence Raw

                                                                                                          9 Mar. 2017