RADIO / Six of the best from Marlowe

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
STABBED in the eye and dying, Christopher Marlowe collapsed in a seedy tavern at Deptford one summer night 400 years ago, victim of skulduggery more mysterious than fiction. Though not quite 30, he had already unwittingly written the first radio plays. Presenting horridly specific torture, rapturous supernatural visions and vast terrestrial conquest, his six great plays have to be heard to be believed. Radio 3 is celebrating the anniversary by giving us the works.

In June, it broadcast Sue Wilson's magnificent production of Dr Faustus, so atmospheric that when Mephistopheles conjured up the shimmering apparition of Helen of Troy it sounded ravishing, as if it was indeed the face that launched a thousand ships. As for the ending, although you knew that Faustus would be damned eternally, he seemed to be in with a chance to the last white-knuckle moment.

Sunday night was devoted to Tamburlaine the Great. Michael Pennington, as the eponymous Scourge of God, paced himself. When he first appeared, he seemed to hold the fates bound fast not only in iron chains but in a trance induced by the monotony of his voice. Then along came divine Zenocrate and, although she was asked, incredulously, 'How can you fancy one that looks so fierce?', she took him on. Played by the nearly divine Samantha Bond, she was enough to make him take charge of his voice again. At her deathbed, he was indeed 'raving, impatient, desperate and mad'. Thereafter, as each barbarous act of cruelty outdid the last, his delivery descended with his cries until he was growling and snapping like a pit-bull terrier.

Michael Fox used electronic music to illustrate the clash of arms, but it came dangerously near to bathos: a minor victim gurgles, 'Urrggh, I die,' then crash, bang, thump, he's dead. Disdainful of these weird noises, the majesty of Marlowe's wonderful lines wove their intricate fabric of imagery and passion, suspending all disbelief with their sheer power. 'Is it not passing brave to be a king,' muses the tyrant, 'and ride in triumph through Persepolis?' Yes, but then again, only if the price is right. To tot up Tamburlaine's victims is to agree with the poet: 'Accurs'd be he that first invented war.'

The World Service is currently broadcasting an impressive history of warfare called From Hoplite to Harrier. It has left the barbarian hordes behind and reached the 18th century and the invention of the flintlock musket with socket bayonet. The big names were Marlborough and Frederick the Great. The Prussian leader relied on the rapid movement of a conscripted army, fleshed out with foreign mercenaries. Marlborough, however, used a network of young officers trained to be 'running footmen', constantly scooting around the battlefield and bringing back details. They earned him his reputation for omniscience - and omnipresence - with their advice: 'M'lord, if you could make an appearance behind the First Foot it would be much appreciated. They're looking a little windy.' In the background, someone sang an early version of 'Waltzing Matilda', whose chorus went 'Who'll be a soldier for Marlborough and me?'

Such tactics earned him a reputation as a great deceiver, as we heard in a new series on Radio 4. Called Dirty Tricks, it considers the role played by lies and deceit in winning battles. If the Greeks had only thought of making a wooden horse at the beginning of the Trojan wars, they would have freed Helen without 10 years of fighting and countless casualties. The breezy Peter Snow related some fascinating stories of other clever ruses. One, staged in August 1918, in effect ended the stalemate of trench warfare by making it appear that a huge attack was to be mounted near Ypres while secretly rolling tanks up over straw by night to the eventual site of the Battle of Amiens.

It succeeded so well that an English officer was able to

capture a German general and his entire staff as they were sitting down to their dinner, thinking they were miles away from the enemy.

In the Second World War, an even craftier plan, using dummies on parachutes, harmless fireworks, fake maps and bogus tanks, led to a decisive victory for the Eighth Army. Sir David Hunt recalled a careful conversation with the German general who still, some time later, did not realise how he had been fooled. He expressed gratitude for those inaccurate maps. Sir David thought it wrong, he said, to undeceive him.

The trouble with programmes like this is that they tend to romanticise war, making it sound more exciting than murderous. The oddly-named Rejoice (R4) had the opposite effect. It was a lurid story about two Falklands veterans. One had become wimpish and impotent as a result of his experiences. His silly wife fell for his old comrade who proved to be a professional assassin. Though the playwright David Howard is no Marlowe, the message he drove forcefully home was the same. Hand-to- hand combat does nothing for domestic tranquillity.

Though what's so tranquil about home? In what are billed as amusing lectures, Jeremy Hardy Speaks to the Nation (R4/R1) on Thursdays. In his first address he described people who listen to the radio as sitting there 'naked with balaclavas on waiting for something to write in and complain about'. Thanks, Jeremy, but I can complain about you hatless with my clothes on.