Government radio is a cross between a museum and a religious school, dispensing classics and credo, but not especially concerned with new works. Commercial radio is a department store, carrying in stock a few luxury items, a lot of supposedly essential commodities and perhaps too many cheap brands of goods. The radio [as imagined and desired by some who write for the medium] is an artist’s studio, dedicated to creation alone. As such, it is not yet able to stand on its own, and its product must be exhibited in the museum or the gallery of the department store.
This is how America’s foremost radio playwright, Norman Corwin, summed up the problems of writing for the theatre of the mind. While its sets are being created collaboratively by writers, actors, directors, sound effects artists, musicians, and audiences, radio plays must nonetheless be staged to be realized—and 1940s network radio was hardly a public access forum.
After World War II, even Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish found it impossible to gain access to the broadcasting boards under the department store conditions of commercial US radio. He had to take his play “The Trojan Horse” to the “museum” of the BBC’s Broadcasting House (pictured above) to give it an airing. A hollow victory indeed.
Well, today I’ve been both to the museum and the department store, each time for some decidedly conventional fare. I gave Mike Walker’s 20-part adaptation of David Copperfield another try, after recording installments six to nine (the tenth having had its premiere this evening). I think that, as much as I like the quiet dignity of a museum, I’ve still got a department store ear.
Unlike Dickens, Walker does not seem to have a mind for either a dramatic or a proscenium arch. How anyone can manage to follow this adaptation while tuning in on a day-to-day basis is beyond me. It is all very pleasant, mind you, but I cannot quite piece it together, especially since Walker’s narrator makes little effort to help us make sense of it all. Instead, he suffers—and I along with him—from an identity crisis, now being an omniscient nobody, now a self-conscious author.
So, I took refuge again in the department store and listened to a Christmas-themed episode of My Favorite Husband, starring Lucille Ball. As much as I like Ms. Ball, this is only the second or third sample I took of this I Love Lucy precursor. The premise, as stated in the introduction of each episode, holds little promise. Where is the drama if a couple like Liz and George Cooper “live together and like it”? As is often the case in the realm of situation comedies, a stereotypical mother-in-law can be counted on to create the requisite domestic friction. And George’s busybody of a mother is downright Dickensian in her prissy hypocrisy—a match, to be sure, for Clara Copperfield’s sister-in-law, Jane Murdstone.
Making another visit on this day, 16 December, in 1949, Liz’s mother-in-law is at her belittling and bickering best, complaining about the lack of cleanliness in her son’s home and mocking Liz’s efforts to knit a sweater for George (“why are you holding that dirty old dust rag?”). After getting Liz all frazzled, she finally takes off, but not before unravelling her daughter-in-law’s handiwork. The last word on meddling, however, comes from the program’s announcer:
Ladies and gentlemen, the Christmas and New Year holiday season is a period of neighborly getting-together and renewing community ties. It’s a time when every American should be even more aware of the individual liberties he enjoys in the United States. And this freedom demands that each of us fulfils our duties as a citizen: to vote, to serve on juries, and to participate in community, state and national affairs. By making our form of government work better here, we strengthen democracy everywhere. We provide an example of a free government, which preserves the rights and the dignity of the individual. So, remember: freedom is everybody’s job.
Not quite the announcement you’d expect to emanate from a department store loudspeaker, is it?