The Rescue (BBC Third Programme, 1943)

The Rescue was heard at the British Library on 30 October 2014 as the third in a five-part series of public listenings. Below, Dr Amanda Wrigley of the University of Westminster offers some background to this work:

1962 The Rescue (RT)The first broadcast of The Rescue, a dramatisation of part of Homer’s Odyssey by Edward Sackville-West with music by Benjamin Britten, was heard on 25 November 1943. Not only was this the first substantial treatment of Homeric epic on BBC Radio, but it also appears to be the most enduring with six further productions to 1988. Of the 1962 production for the Third Programme, the producer Val Gielgud wrote in the Radio Times of the contribution of Benjamin Britten’s music to the drama as follows:

It is not only in obvious instances – such as the ‘Song of the Sirens’ or ‘Athene’s trumpet’ – that the music makes its contribution. It sets the scene; it changes scene and sequence. Again and again, particularly in the accompaniments to the soliloquies of Odysseus and Penelope, it both establishes and heightens atmosphere. It is in the music that the sun rises over Ithaca; that the arrows fly from the Great Bow; that the blood of the Suitors drips from the columns of the Hall. (Radio Times, 22 February 1962, p. 50)

The collaboration of Sackville-West and Britten made a distinctive and, for the time, significant development in the exploration of the dramatic potential of radio and the close association of words and music in this work suggests a reflective awareness of the relationship of radio to the ancient performance of epic poetry, especially through the character of the bard Phemius. Furthermore, the creative combination of words and music serves to encourage a deep level of interpretative understanding on the part of the radio audience, especially during the scene in which Phemius gives Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) a tutorial on how to recognize the presence of the gods. 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 one of the central themes of the play which encourages characters (and listeners) to look carefully for the meaning and value of things. Thus, and in other ways, did The Rescue resonate with the contemporary international situation and make a strong case for the humanizing potential of aesthetic experience.

This is especially significant given The Rescue’s composition and broadcast during World War II, and its deliberate resonances with especially the local and personal devastations of war. Odysseus takes up his responsibility to help the ravaged Ithacans to make sense of the past with the help of the gods; The Rescue seems to suggest that the parallel responsibilities on the part of the Allied forces might be fulfilled through what was perceived to be the humanizing potential of the arts. This was related to the BBC’s contribution to the cultural life of the nation in wartime, a contribution which (like those of ENSA and CEMA) engaged huge and responsive audiences.

Further reading:

Foreman, Lewis (1988), ‘Benjamin Britten and The Rescue’, Tempo 166, 28–33.

Sackville-West, Edward (1945), The Rescue: A Melodrama for Broadcasting Based on Homer’s Odyssey. Orchestral Score by Benjamin Britten.With Six Illustrations to the Text by Henry Moore. London: Secker & Warburg.

Wrigley, Amanda (2010), ‘A Wartime Radio Odyssey: Edward Sackville-West and Benjamin Britten’s The Rescue (1943)’, The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast and Audio Media 8.2, 81-103.


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