Why we should all be more intermedial

28th October 2013

Earlier this month I was delighted to make a very modest contribution to a conference in Oxford about Louis MacNeice, radio writer and producer co-organised by my Screen Plays colleague Dr Amanda Wrigley. Amanda and Professor Stephen Harrison have just published an edited volume of a selection of MacNeice’s radio scripts, Louis MacNeice: The Classical Radio Plays (Oxford University Press, 2013), and the event was to mark that and also the fiftieth anniversary of MacNeice’s death.

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963, pictured above in 1955) was a mid-century poet who worked for more than twenty years as an imaginative and innovative writer and producer for radio, but who also had plays staged in the theatre and on television. For the conference I offered a paper about MacNeice and television (the subject of a parallel post at the Screen Plays website), and the day’s discussion prompted all sorts of new ideas. But above all, the papers reinforced my sense of how much richer our cultural history would be if it was written and studied far more than it is beyond and across disciplinary boundaries like ‘literature’, ‘film studies’ and ‘broadcasting history’. If, that is, we were all more ‘intermedial’.

One idea of the ‘intermedial’ concerns cultural expression that combines elements of conventionally distinct media or in some way works between them. One example might be the way the recently closed National Theatre production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II  integrated film sequences and live video. As does Headlong’s fine touring adaptation of 1984 (which will be seen at the Almeida next year). I intend to make this use of screens on stage the focus for a future post, but here I am concerned with a related but distinct notion of the intermedial.

For the purposes of this post, I take being ‘intermedial’ to mean exploring the connections and cross-overs between, let’s say, theatre and television (the focus of Screen Plays, or between literature, radio and the cinema. Among the projects thrown up by the conference that might benefit from such an approach was Louis MacNeice’s (1957-60), a play that he wrote originally for the theatre and then adapted and produced for television. Then there is MacNeice’s One for the Grave, a play first drafted for television and set in a television studio, but first played (posthumously) in the theatre.

The paper by Professor Hugh Chignell discussed Louis MacNeice’s early wartime radio broadcasts for the series The Stones Cry Out, and as we listened to an excerpt we were irresistibly reminded of the layered sound and allusive imagery of Humphrey Jennings’ films like London Can Take It (1940) and Listen to Britain (1942). And a highlight of the day for me was the presentation by Professor Claire Davison about Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky (1938) and the BBC radio version of the same tale that MacNeice and producer Dallas Bower created in 1944.

I recognise of course researchers and writers look at the connections across media all the time, and especially in the context of considering different kinds of adaptations. But a focus on a single artform – literature or film or radio – remains the dominant approach by far in cultural histories. For (too) much of the time we are locked within our disciplinary strait-jackets, with art historians considering painting, film scholars taking on the cinema and so forth.

This is perhaps particularly the case in television about the arts, where documentaries about the arts are almost exclusively about a single art form. When did you last see a series that ranged across, say, the drama and the painting and the music of early modern Britain? Or a group of films that take a truly integrated approach to, for example, Romanticism? Instead, we have Andrew Graham-Dixon on the visual arts of a country, Simon Russell Beale on aspects of music, James Shapiro on the drama of the Jacobeans.

One recent book that successfully adopts this intermedia approach is Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, about which I wrote admiringly back in 2010. This study of strands of British culture of the 1930s and ’40s draws together literature, the visual arts and architecture in a way that proves revelatory about its period. I recognise the tyrannies of academic departmentalism and publishing’s desire for conventional categorisation but I remain puzzled as to why more critical writing fails to embrace the impetus of the intermedial.

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