|The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, adapted by Marcy Kahan. Dir. Emma Harding. Perf. Richard Schiff, Maggie Steed, Julian Rhind-Tutt. BBC Radio 4, 5-19 January 2015. BBCiPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04y9lz1 to 23 Feb. 2015.
Superficially The Corrections might seem to be a family melodrama reminiscent of the kind of fare that enjoyed a peak of popularity in the fifteen years or so after the end of the Second World War (Death of a Salesman, Picnic, A Streetcar Named Desire). An elderly matriarch Enid Lambert (Maggie Steed) struggles to keep everyone together, although it is clear that no real love exists between her husband Alfred (Colin Stinton) and their offspring Gary, Chip and Denise (Richard Laing- Julian Rhind-Tutt, Denise Hill). They meet on a regular basis – for example, at Christmas – but they are always trying to escape from one another, either by leaving the house altogether or moving to different rooms. The tone is set in the very episodes, when Alfred exercises a tyrannical authority over the adolescent boys, while Enid plans a kind of pyrrhic revenge by cooking liver and bacon together.
As Emma Harding’s adaptation unfolded, however, it became clear that Franzen deliberately chose to subvert this familiar structure. This was done partly through the use of an omniscient narrator (Richard Schiff), who kept telling us the events even before they had happened, suggesting a kind of controlling presence that moved the characters through the narrative as if they were voluble marionettes. Perhaps paradoxically, however, Harding’s production also created a world in which anything could happen: the characters moved from place to place, from job to job, without any clear purpose to their lives. They just tried to make money, set up themselves both personally as well as professionally, and thereby break free of the family’s controlling presence. The world of The Corrections was a random one: as the narrative progressed, so the sequence of events became more and more far-fetched (and increasingly amusing), with the characters desperately trying to make sense of their individual fates.
The narrative ended with Alfred’s death in a nursing-home, the victim of several debilitating diseases. Yet he was still prone to engage in fantasies of power, to which his children readily acquiesced. Even if they knew his true condition, they were reluctant to admit it. Hence it became very difficult to separate “reality” from “fantasy” – especially in one extremely funny sequence where Alfred exchanged insults with an animated turd. Such sequences proved once more how difficult, if not impossible, the task proved for anyone to make sense of their lives – even the omniscient narrator. The more he told us about the events to follow, the more we doubted his word. He was merely a storyteller, whose dialogue could be perceived as equally fantastic as that of the increasingly demented Alfred.
Once Alfred had finally passed away, Eleanor solemnly announced that she was embarking on a “fresh start.” This gave the adaptation an optimistic coda, but did not convince listeners that she would ever fulfill her intentions. She was just spinning another yarn, a fantasy no different in tone from any of the others that dominated the previous action.
Performed with vocal tongues very much in their cheeks, the cast of The Correctionscreated a memorable listening experience, one that might be offensive in places (especially the scene with the turds), but helped us understand the artificiality behind the melodramatic conventions that so dominated American dramas of the past and present.