Radio drama, Colonial Radio Theatre, December 2006.
Bradbury first presented it on stage at New York's Lincoln Center in April 1967, in a musical version with music by Billy Goldenberg and lyrics by Larry Alexander.
(non-musical) play was published in 1988, and has been staged several
Dramatised by Ray
Bradbury, from his novel
Green Town, Illinois, 1928. Douglas Spaulding, twelve years old, awakens the town and so doing introduces the cast of characters: family, friends and neighbours.
Doug, out picking grapes with his father and brother, has an epiphany. He discovers that he is alive.
One evening, a stranger arrives in town. Bill Forrester seems to have an uncanny knowledge of the people of Green Town. Forrester moves into the Spaulding family guest house.
During the summer, Doug, brother Tom and friend John Huff have a series of adventures. They encounter Leo Auffmann, who decides to construct a happiness machine. They have their fortunes told by a mechanical Tarot Witch. They listen to Colonel Freeleigh, a Civil War veteran whose storytelling transports them to the past.
Forrester meets with Ann Barclay, and seems to know her remarkably well. Doug walks Ann home every night from the library where she works...except one day Doug is delayed, and Ann sets off alone through the Ravine, a frightening place that cuts Green Town in two...and where the murderous Lonely One preys on his victims.
As summer comes to a close, and Grandpa is bottling the last of the dandelion wine, Doug falls ill. Bill Forrester visits him at his sickbed and reveals that he is an older version of Doug. Green Town, and all that we have seen and heard, is Bill's memory of his childhood. He has come to warn Doug not to be afraid of change.
Bill feeds Doug some dandelion wine, and this - with Doug's vision of his future life - brings him around to enjoy the last day of summer.
This audio production is taken not from Bradbury's 1957 novel, but from his own stage play adaptation, first published in 1988. Dandelion Wine first came to the stage in the 1960s, as a musical production, and then had additional incarnations as musical and 'straight' drama.
Readers familiar only with the novel may be surprised to find an overarching plot thread that is almost completely new: the storyline involving Bill Forrester. Although Forrester appears in the novel, he is prominent for only one chapter. In the play, he turns out to be pivotal.
The new storyline serves two purposes. One is to give the play a unity that would otherwise be difficult to achieve. As with many of Bradbury's novelised story cycles, Dandelion Wine is more of a collection of incidents than a coherent linear narrative. It is difficult to imagine a ninety-minute play that could mirror the structure of the novel. That said, Bradbury has successfully adapted the novelised story cycle of The Martian Chronicles, structure and all, for the stage.
The second purpose is to give an additional perspective to the boy's-eye-view of the novel. Bill Forrester is, to some extent, Bradbury himself: returning to his memories, returning to his cast of familiar characters, to find some new insight into his older self. In 1964 Bradbury said:
I believe the past is both bad and good, it can both wound and heal. If one goes to it to suffer [...] of course the junk must go out of the attic into the incinerator. But if it can be used to instruct so that a man, turning over the fabulous junk in his trunkroom, can feel like a centipede, I grew this leg that year, and this leg the next [...] then a man extends himself in time, and becomes whole.
initially presents himself as writer, so Bradbury is doing something really
quite complex here. He is revisiting his childhood, since Dandelion
Wine is partly autobiographical. But he is also revisiting his text,
and by reinventing Forrester he is able to revisit his text from the inside.
As we shall see later, Doug and Forrester both succeed in extending themselves
in time, and become whole.
To facilitate this outsider, Bradbury has had to re-shape some of the events of the novel. The ageing Helen Loomis, Bill Forrester's ice-cream parlour date in the novel, is here replaced by the much younger Ann Barclay, town librarian. Ann is a new character, although she bears some resemblance to Lavinia Nebbs and other young ladies who become troubled by the Lonely One.
The novel's Forrester fall in love with the much older Loomis - because of some ancient photo he has seen. The play's Forrester makes a sideways reference to this, when he says that he once fell in love with a woman twice his age, but is now in love with one half his age.
Bradbury's other changes are largely to condense the narrative: some plot threads are dealt with in passing, such as Auffmann's Happiness Machine; others are eliminated entirely, such as Freeleigh's phone call to Mexico.
The audio production is extravagant, and benefits from some strong performances and an extensive musical score. Like McDonough's Bradbury 13, Dandelion Wine sounds something like a film soundtrack, with multiple layers of voice, effects, ambience and music.
There is always a certain danger in dramatising stories which have children as the lead characters. Clayton's film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes provides a good illustration of some of the difficulties. Radio/audio production, one might think, can avoid some of the issues to do with physicality and screen presence, but conversely the performers must have sufficient mastery of speech that they can hold the listener. Even in the UK, where radio drama is still very much a living art form (radio drama can be heard several times daily on the BBC), it has been difficult to find and maintain a repertory company of child actors - to the extent that child parts are still often taken by women.
Dandelion Wine has one or two moments of weakness from the juvenile stars, but for the most part Bill Humphrey (as Doug), James McLean (as Tom) and Jonah David (as John Huff) manage to sustain credibility and drive the story forward with energy and enthusiasm.
There are three dramatic highlights in the production, all of them presented with a soundscape which listeners will either find masterful (as I do) or overbearing. The first of these is the encounter with the Tarot Witch at the end of act one. She predicts doom and gloom, bad harvests and the departure of Doug's best friend.
The second is Doug and his friends' visit to the time machine known as Colonel Freeleigh. In the novel, Freeleigh is described as almost indistinguishable from the armchair he resides in.Here, Freeleigh is inseparable from his memories, which wash over him - and us - in waves of sound. Listen on headphones or a good set of speakers and you will believe you are with Pawnee Bill watching the buffalo thunder past.
The third is Doug's sickbed encounter with Bill Forrester. Constructed as a reverie, it leads us to wonder whether Green Town is Forrester's reconstruction of his past, or Doug's projection of his future. This echoes Bachelard's characterisation of reverie:
[...] in the most solitary of reveries, when we call forth vanished beings, when we idealise the persons who are dear to us, when in our readings we are free enough to live as man or woman, we feel that all of life takes on a double - that the past takes on a double, that all beings become double in their idealisation [...]
As realised in the audio production, the Doug/Forrester encounter re-enacts almost the entire play in miniature, with sound samples of each of the key moments of Doug's summer interspersed with the final bottling and sampling of the dandelion wine.
The production has some weaknesses. Minor ones relate to the soundscape. Occasionally, diegetic sounds will be disconnected from their source, typically when a character runs or walks. Toms footsteps run in from stage left, but Tom's voice appears stage centre. Doug and Ann begin walking from the library, but we can tell this only from the sound of footsteps, not from any subtle change in the performance of the actors. These are minor technical points which most listeners will probably not even notice. However, if you do the production justice and listen on headphones, you will become aware of some of these.
A more major weakness arises not from the audio production, but from Bradbury's play itself. It works well as a re-visit, if you already know the book. I wonder, however, how accessible it will be to the listener who is not familiar with the original text. The opening montages of small-town life are so idiosyncratic - Miss Fern and Miss Roberta in their electric car, Mr Tridden in his trolley - that it must be dificult to make sense of what is going on unless you already know. Bradbury places several of these throughout the play, and although they may work on stage when supported by visuals, I fear they may be lost on some listeners in this production.
I applaud Colonial Radio Theater for opting to produce from Bradbury's play, rather than make their own adaptation from the novel. Few radio producers have taken this path before (exceptions are the BBC productions of Leviathan '99 and Kaleidoscope). I also applaud them for the full-on audio production, which makes this one of the most lively and energetic Bradbury productions for many years.
Anon. (1964) "A Portrait of Genius: Ray Bradbury" in Aggelis, S.L. (ed.)(2004) Conversations with Ray Bradbury. Jackson,MS: University Press of Mississippi
Bachelard, G. (1992) The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, language and the cosmos. Boston, MA: Beacon Press
Eller, J.R. & Touponce, W.F.(2004) Ray Bradbury: The life of fiction. Kent,OH: Kent State University Press
Ordering and other information can be found at Colonial Radio Theatre's website.