A wartime radio Odyssey: Edward Sackville-West and Benjamin Britten's The Rescue (1943)

Wrigley, Amanda (2011). A wartime radio Odyssey: Edward Sackville-West and Benjamin Britten's The Rescue (1943). Radio Journal:International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media, 8(2) pp. 81–103.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/rjao.8.2.81_1


The Rescue, Edward Sackville-West's 1943 radio dramatization of part of Homer's Odyssey with music by Benjamin Britten, appears to be the first substantial treatment of Homeric epic on BBC Radio, and also the most enduring (with six further productions to 1988). The Homeric epics are rich sources of material for radio dramatization: the poems offer much that is worth re-telling, with many dramatic episodes; furthermore, a great proportion of each poem is delivered in direct speech. But there is also a strong affinity between the ancient performance of Homeric epic and the modern radio play. Both tell of characters and events that the audience cannot see: ancient bard and modern radio practitioners (writers, composers, actors, etc.) must capture and hold the imagination of the audience without the aid of bodily impersonation. This article considers two interrelated aspects of this particular radio Odyssey: first, how the collaboration of Sackville-West and Britten made a distinctive exploration of the dramatic potential of radio; second, how the close association of words and music suggest a reflective awareness of The Rescue's relationship with ancient epic performance, especially through the character of the bard Phemius. The narrative of The Rescue both resonates with the contemporary international situation and argues for the humanizing potential of aesthetic experience: in the Epilogue, Phemius implores the (radio) audience to Forget the poem I made; but remember/The purer voice you hear behind my words, distilling a theme of the play which encourages characters and listeners to search for the meaning and value of things. Thus, the listener is encouraged not only to hear the story but also to listen to its meaning not simply hear the music, but listen to what it is saying. The article concludes with a consideration of the evidence in the Listener Research Report of how individual listeners actually engaged with and responded to the 1943 premire and later productions.

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