Pardon my credulity, but yesterday, listening to the radio, I experienced my own “War of the Worlds” encounter—you know, an act of airwave fakery during which hearing becomes believing. Going about my daily affairs, I picked up a few words of what I assumed to be a news broadcast, it being preceded by the customary jingle of the oft relied upon BBC. “Much of East Anglia remains under water today after the latest North Sea storm surge,” newsreader Adrian Finnegan informed me, and “nearly a million people” had been evacuated from an area large portions of which might never be reclaimed from the sea. Why hadn’t I heard about this before, I wondered, still under the influence of telecasts from hurricane-battered New Orleans.
As it turned out, I had been listening to Jeremy Vine’s “Climate Change Special” on BBC Radio 2, in which discussions about global warming and environmental crises were interspersed with a series of fictive news bulletin from the future—the year 2035. After such spurious time-traveling, I retreated into the world of fantasy, a bit of old-time radio whimsy from the pen of none other than the late American playwright Arthur Miller.
Yes, Miller does have a radio past, even though it is a less than illustrious one. So it is frequently, politely, and foolishly ignored, as if a half-decade of dabbling in the theater of the mind could not possibly have had an influence on the career of a writer whose 1964 drama After the Fall “takes place in the mind, thought, and memory” of its protagonist.
“I despise radio,” Miller told an interviewer in 1947; with a successful play on Broadway and a well-received first novel to his credit, Miller was ready to get out of what he referred to as “a dark closet.” He meant the melodramatic excesses of radio drama, but also complained about the limitations imposed by network executives and the sponsors that fed them. Well, let’s open that closet now to commemorate the broadcast anniversary of Miller’s “The Pussycat and the Expert Plumber Who Was a Man,” a radio fantasy produced by the Columbia Workshop on 29 September 1940.
While not quite the man who had all the luck, Miller was rather fortunate to begin his career in radio, having his plays soundstaged by the sustaining (that is, commercial free) Workshop, a venue far more open to experimentation than the program he chose to recall in Timebends. His playful “Pussycat” is the story of an invisible trickster—a commentary on radio, therefore, and one that forced me to keep in mind the mind-game to which I had just been subjected.
The eponymous tomcat is a megalomaniac intent on going into politics and swaying the masses with his “lovely tenor voice.” Hidden from view behind a microphone, he convinces his audience of potential voters that he “must be a wonderful man,” until he is exposed as a fraud by an average Joe who threatens to drag him out into the open. “[I]f you want to know,” he sums up his tale, “a cat will do anything, the worst things, to fill his stomach, but a man . . . a man will actually prefer to stay poor because of an ideal.”
Clearly, Miller resented radio because he felt that it was making a pussycat of the manly expert he aspired to be. Yet he often overstated the strictures of network radio and eventually got too tired to resist them. Radio plays may not be the cat’s meow to narrow-minded intellectuals, but experts like Norman Corwin proved that they were hardly the litterbox of American culture.