“A Christmas Carol” 2020 and the Storied History of Audio Drama

By Sam Mauceri

For many Chicagoans, a much-anticipated holiday tradition is getting dressed up, heading downtown and watching Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol amongst hundreds of other excited theatregoers. So what happens when COVID-19 prevents audiences from gathering at the theatre to celebrate the season? This year Goodman Theatre is adapting its beloved stage production to a new medium: the radio play. While this approach is an exciting first for the Goodman, it also represents a return to the long-established popular tradition of audio dramas.

Audio drama, audio play, audio theatre, radio play, and radio drama are different names for a similar idea: a fictional, dramatized story that an audience experiences by listening. Audio dramas became popular with the advent of radio in the early 1920s. While live theatre performed on stage was a popular form of entertainment, radio allowed people to enjoy exciting stories from the comfort of their own homes. Furthermore, radio, unlike theatre, was available to audiences for free, a fact that theatres feared would destroy their business.

While it was typical in the early days of radio to hear excerpts of stage plays and other fiction read aloud, plays were soon written specifically for radio. The first radio play that was written for the medium was A Comedy of Danger, broadcast in 1924 in Britain on BBC, closely followed by The Wolf, broadcast in the U.S. that same year.

The most famous radio play of all time is perhaps War of the Worlds by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel, broadcast on October 30, 1938. The play was written as a fictional news report informing listeners that Martians had invaded New Jersey. The program allegedly caused hysteria among listeners in New Jersey, who reportedly did not hear the disclaimer at the beginning of the play and believed the story to be a real news program. However, the truth of that hysteria has been debated since.

The 1930s introduced “The Golden Age of Radio”, the period in which radio became embedded into the everyday lives of Americans, with 28 million American households owning a radio by 1939. Throughout World War II, Americans relied on radio for news on the war, as well as music and other entertainment. The Golden Age of Radio gave Americans countless popular programs for the whole family to enjoy together. However, when TVs became widely available to consumers in the 1950s, radio fell from the top spot for family entertainment.

In the 21st century, a new medium has revolutionized and re-popularized the audio drama: the podcast. Non-fiction programs originally broadcast on the radio like This American Life and Radiolab gained new fanbases once they were released in podcast form, but podcasts truly broke into the mainstream in 2014 with the true crime podcast Serial. In the wake of Serial’s ubiquitous success, other investigative and true crime favorites like My Favorite Murder, S-Town and Missing Richard Simmons have gained popularity.

Alongside the surge in listenership for non-fiction podcasts, fiction podcasts have also gained bigger audiences in recent years. Shows like Welcome to Nightvale, Homecoming and Hello from the Magic Tavern demonstrate the broad range of genres achievable in an audio drama format, from sci-fi and fantasy to action-adventure.

Podcasts, like radio, have the advantage of being free for listeners. There are also fewer barriers for creators than in other mediums. Unlike authors who rely on publishers, and TV writers who rely on networks to buy their pitch for a new TV show, podcasters can create and broadcast their own content entirely independently on a relatively low budget if they so choose. In fact, anyone can make a podcast with minimal technology, as explained in this guide for students from NPR on how to make your own podcast.

Podcasts have also been a space for independent creators to tell stories that feature more diverse casts of characters and actors than traditional media. Recent audio dramas like The Two Princes from Gimlet Media and Apocalypse Untreated by Gaby Dunn feature many queer and trans characters of color, who are largely played by actors who share those same identities. Whether you prefer a particular genre or enjoy hearing stories featuring characters you can personally identify with, there is an audio drama for everyone!

While the current coronavirus pandemic has necessitated physical distancing to keep people safe, it has also prompted theatre artists to get creative in how we present our art to audiences. In the Goodman’s case, it has prompted us to return to a tradition of adapting theatre into audio drama. We hope that this holiday season you will enjoy the familiar story of A Christmas Carol presented in a medium that is both old and new.