The retrograde activity of keeping up with the out-of-date seems generally ill-suited to blogging. I doubt whether to keep looking back—and looking forward to doing so as I do—is such a forward looking thing to do. A blog signifies little to most readers if it cannot bring them up-to-date on its declared subject matter, be it popular culture, politics, or fly-fishing. I have often felt compelled—and more often been compelled by others—to defend my engagement with the outmoded; indeed, the first comment left for me in the Blog Explosion directory was a terse “why?”
The answer, if I felt obliged to dignify such a monosyllabic and misologic remark with a reply, would be a simple one: because I enjoy the challenge of discovering the relevance of a work of art, a cultural artefact, or an obscure piece of writing not created with me in mind, of debating how much I might be a creation of the mindset behind such products. Not being able to relate or connect to the bygone is a personal loss, and often a dangerous one at that.
Now, it would require some degree of mental obduracy or lack of imagination not to be able to relate to “An American Is Born,” a radio play that aired on US radio on this day, 19 January, in 1942. It deals with persecution and immigration in wartime, which makes it eminently topical. It is also an obvious and deliberate work of propaganda, composed at a time when the word did not yet carry quite as negative a connotation as is attached to it these days. And yet, just how accepting would today’s audiences be of a play like “An American Is Born”? How likely would they find it produced and propagated by the mass media?
“An American Is Born” was adapted by radio playwright Arch Oboler from a novella by Peter Jefferson Packer and Fanya Lawrence Foss. Written at a time when the US had not yet entered World War II, and first soundstaged in late 1940 with Elisabeth Bergner in the lead, it was again produced a little over a year later for the Cavalcade of America program, with Bette Davis heading the cast.
One of Oboler’s favorite leading ladies, Davis played opposite the highly regarded and versatile radio actor Raymond Edward Johnson. Johnson and Davis took on the roles of Czech immigrants Karl Kroft and his pregnant wife Marta. Their US visa having expired, the young couple cross the border to Mexico, where they wait for their quota numbers to come up. “With the left foot first,” Marta insists as they touch Mexican soil. “That means we’ll be back soon.”
Marta, whose father fought for democracy in her native Prague, desires nothing more than for her child to “be an American from his first cry.” In a “world gone mad with the ravings of little men, he should be born in a country that remains sane and firm. A country that believes that man, as an individual, has certain inalienable rights.”
Initially as idealistic and hopeful as the speech Oboler puts in her mouth, Marta is confident that their stay will only last a few days, but is soon undeceived about the process of immigration. For those waiting, the weeks and months across the border are filled with uncertainties, threatened by corruption, extortion, and political persecution.
When a fellow European offers to assist the young couple, Marta little suspects that he is a member of the Gestapo, and that Marta’s openness about her father’s political convictions endangers the lives of her parent and her unborn child. Another immigrant thus intimidated commits suicide, but not before doing away with the enemy in their midst. At the risk of her own life and that of her unborn child, Marta manages to convince Karl to make a dash for it. As the title suggests, the two make their way across the border to the US, where their child takes the first breath of freedom as an American citizen.
When was it that such an overtly propagandistic melodrama last reached a large American audience? The 1991 movie adaptation of the Reagan-era bestseller Not Without My Daughter comes to mind, a film in which even a Coca-Cola sign in a Turkish bordertown was greeted as a herald of American freedom. Are plays of this kind rarer now because Americans have less to be proud of as a nation or because today’s purveyors of popular culture, whether eyeing a hostile international market or banking on the suit-yourself consumerism of the complain-from-the-couch cynic prefer them to believe just that?
Radio did much to hold a nation together, both during the Depression and the Second World War. Clearly, it is no longer a role the media are prepared, willing, or expected to play.