Well, you know ‘tis the season when you are pleased to find the cardboard likeness of Ms. Claudette Colbert dangling from the branches of a chopped down evergreen. After all, ‘tis the season to revisit old favorites, living, dead, or imagined—the season when the prefix “re-“ becomes the hook on which to fasten our sentiments as we remember old tunes, reflect upon past times, and return unwanted presents. To be sure, it takes a bit of effort (and a want of respect for etymology) to respond to each wintry gale with the determination to regale; but as I am eager to rejoice even while battling a relentless cold with ever-diminishing resilience, I am applying any remedy I can get my hands, eyes, or ears on.
So, once I had finished decking the halls with belles of Hollywood, I caught up with the week’s worth of serialized Dickens I had recorded while still in London. I am referring to Mike Walker’s twenty-part radio adaptation of David Copperfield. Having given up on the BBC’s thrilling television series of Bleak House after missing a few installments, I was anxious to get my Victorian fix for the holidays.
The first five chapters of Walker’s serial faithfully dramatize David’s birth and childhood, bringing before us the acquaintances of his youth—shapeless Peggotty, little Em’ly, hopeful Micawber, and the ever-willing Barkis were all there. Only David was missing, or his point of view, at least. Instead of retaining the first-person narration, Walker decided to install Dickens as the teller of this tale, rather than David, whom the author appointed partly as a stand-in for himself.
The charming, well-remembered opening was chopped in favor of some well-nigh inarticulate blather: “When you care greatly about something or someone . . . well, this is a story about a lot of things and a lot of people. It is a story, . . . but is it my story?” A rather bumbling, awkward start, isn’t it, especially considering that the narrator was not only a first-rate storyteller, but a celebrated orator and performer of his own material.
This is how the real Mr. Dickens, who still wrote in complete, structurally sound sentences, had David introduce himself: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.” And these are pretty much the lines Richard Burton utters at the opening of the US Theatre Guild’s radio adaptation of the novel back on 24 December 1950. The BBC may be a refuge for radio drama—but it frequently blunders where US commercial broadcasting used to succeed.
Is anyone else tuning in? The last broadcastellan poll suggested that radio drama is not quite as doornail-dead as I may have made it out to be. I guess I ought not to infer from the silence of cyber-space that no one is familiar with the culture I chose to recover here. And yet, while researching for my dissertation, I realized just how many plays by noted American novelists, playwrights, and poets have been kept out of earshot by those who have us believe that radio drama is neither remarkable nor marketable. It is the act of refusal that turns art into refuse, and it takes some digging to resist it.
My latest poll is meant to draw further attention to this neglect. Few of these plays are still are heard on radio today, and fewer still are in print. Are these works really any worse than the television offerings that spawn glossy companions and trivia books?
But I am being prickly, aren’t I? And ‘tis the season to be otherwise . . .