Who is the author? That's the question. There are a few divergent schools of thought. In film, the most well known is the auteur theory – the director as the prime author of a film-text, imbuing a movie with meaning and intention below the surface of the narrative.
Another track you can take is the “audience as author.” That's the idea that the meaning doesn't rest within the cultural object being consumed, but in the person consuming it. So there's this screen bouncing light into our eyes, which goes into the brain somewhere, and the brain generates meaning based on the random stimuli it receives, mixing in all the collective definitions from the social context that's on file. Perhaps a bit too Cartesian. Whatever.
To a certain extent, I think we can reasonably say that we are authors of the art we consume. The hard line theorists would want to argue about where to draw the line. I take a more moderate stance. For an artistic work, there is a primary author attempting to do something with the thing they are creating, and that intention gets sent out into the ether. Audience members pick up on it (each to different extents) and translate it through their own understanding, arriving at a final destination of What's It All About Then. Maybe there's some Bakhtin in there somewhere.
Our society has given us two divergent lenses or contexts through which to view audio drama as an artistic medium.
My background in the theatre is part of the artistic journey of audio. The medium is the domain of the playwright, by golly. The directors and actors and producers are mere interpreters, charged with delivering the pure drams of Author's Intention to the audience. Every so often, a great work is revived and re-mounted to find new audiences, perhaps sussing out different subtleties and slight variations on the meaning imbued by the playwright. These works are ephemeral, they exist in the glorious moment and then disappear forever. This medium is not of machines. It is woven of gossamer strands of tension between living beings and words, breathing, sweating, feeling, the truth of their emotions leeched through their pores and into the eyes and nostrils and ears of the doughy, trussed-up people reclined in velvet rows before them.
Dude, I have a vision. Hold my calls, Janice. Let me tell you somethin, I'm seeing fountains, explosions, car chases, a dead hooker in the bathtub, a final showdown with a naked woman in a room full of mirrors. Tom Hanks is interested, I saw him at the gym last week. Great guy, close personal friend. Script? Yeah we'll get one, I know a guy who's very workable. Just give him whatever notes and he'll fit it in, no prob. It's not Shakespeare, buddy. It's all about what's on screen. The script, it's barely a blueprint, it's an organizational tool to help the director get it done. It's what we need to greenlight...usually.
A script is like a big treatment that has saying-words.
The communities and social expectations surrounding stage plays and movies create different expectations for the audience. When we go to a play, we are ingesting what the playwright wants us to (or at least we expect to). When we go to a movie, the director is giving us a message that doesn't necessarily come from the script. You can make a good movie from a terrible script, because there are so many intentions involved in the process, each one jockeying for control. Along the way, the writer gets lost in the shuffle. And the system (in Hollywood, at least) does not give the writers power, control, or primacy at any point in the process. Unless they are also producers.
So with these two very different conceptions of drama at work in the world – where does audio drama fit it?
I think the answer is that it's a bit of both, and the mix has changed over time. Years ago, when radio plays were performed live, it was more like theatre, and in order to re-broadcast a play it needed to be re-performed. There was so little opportunity for a director to “make their mark” that the author's involvement in the meaning of the work was vital. There wasn't time to suss out a different interpretation. If there was a question, the only person who knew the answer was the guy who wrote it. And he was probably in the canteen.
As recording technology has improved, so have radio plays become more filmic. Computer and car stereos reproduce a richer and more detailed soundscape than the old scratchy Philcos. A modern radio play has more room for a director's intention – more options for editing and mixing, sound effects, types of sounds, dynamic range, etc. A realm of choices has opened up, eroding the author's primal role. But only slightly. In the end, you can't do without a script. You can't take a terrible script and make a good radio play out of it, because the combination of words is the backbone of the whole thing.
Where does this leave us in terms of remakes? Which version of Under Milk Wood is the definitive version? Surely not the scratchy one starring Dylan Thomas? Or is it the Richard Burton one? Or the one from 2003, featuring an all new cast plus Burton edited into the mix? I don't think we can resolve this question at all, because of the time frame that the versions of the play straddle. Under Milk Wood spans the eras of theatre-ish radio and film-ic radio and does not rest comfortably in either camp.
In film, a remake is something bad. It's usually a disaster because the thing that made the original so great (the combination of director and material) isn't there. Even if it turns out better, a suspicion lingers. The new thing is still treated like an imposter.
I'm not aware of this feeling in the realm of radio drama, although it might be there. But I think that such an attitude will grow over time, as radio dramas become less ephemeral, as the plays linger on within our grasp instead of disappearing forever. We will come to give greater status to the recorded object instead of just the words that comprise it. And that's fine – as long as we don't start treating the radio playwright the way Hollywood treats screenwriters.
With the possible exception of the question of money.