On This Day in 1937: Dickens’s "Signal-Man" Is Interviewed on the Air

Well, my first review for the Internet Movie Database has gone online this weekend. I sincerely hope that no one will be led astray by my remarks about The Misleading Lady (previously discussed here). Unlike the rating, writing the short piece was a joy. As fascinated as I am by numbers (provided I don’t have to add them up), I have never been able to express myself satisfactorily in this supposedly succinct way. I also tend to be rather stingy with my stars or points or other such statistical thumbs, whether I share my opinions on the database or 

grade a student paper.

Five stars out of ten (as bestowed on aforementioned Lady) is meant to denote mediocrity; but to others it might spell “plain awful.” To me, two means “awful,” which is just what Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen merits, had I cast my vote. That insult to the memory of the famed detective, which aired on LivingTV in the UK this weekend, is so insufferable, however, that I could not sit through it. So, I willingly, gladly surrendered my right to vote, at least according to my own ethics of re-viewing. Luckily, I don’t have to deal with numerical expressions of (dis)approval in my ruminations about American radio drama.

On this day, 23 January, in 1937, the Columbia Workshop presented Charles Tazewell’s dramatization of Charles Dickens’s ghost story “The Signal-Man.” Too many American drama anthologies for radio tackled longer novels, rather than short stories, resulting in cut-rate digests and bloodless storytelling. In early radio drama, the narrator was the first to get the axe; gone with him or her were descriptive passages, character assessments, and an access to a speaker’s inner thoughts.

As I argue in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral study on the subject, the prejudice against narration in radio plays (a more inclusive term I prefer over radio drama), is related to the early failure in presenting stage plays straight from Broadway, a lack of adaptive skill that made it necessary to install a translator in the wings, a voice describing the gestures of the actors and the inaudible goings-on known as “business.” The challenge of proper radio form was to do without this awkward voice, to convey actions and thoughts in dialogue.

Another reason serious radio playwrights objected to—and producers did not encourage—the use of narration was the fact that the single voice on commercial radio was linked to the announcer, the peddler of a sponsor’s wares. The single voice stood out, disrupted the conversation—and thus drew attention to the business at hand: the business of selling things.

Over the years, radio plays and the techniques of broadcast hawkers became considerably more sophisticated; but the narrator was still frowned upon by many playwrights and listeners. Now, Charles Dickens’s “Signal-Man,” as reworked for the Columbia Workshop by actor-writer Charles Tazewell, is a fine example for the use of full dramatization.

In Dickens’s narrative, the plight of the titular character—a lonely railroad employee haunted by a death-foretelling “Thing in the Tunnel” (as the story was also called when adapted for radio)—is expressed by the man who observes him:

His pain of mind was most pitiable to see. It was the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life.

Tazewell’s script called for the actor to convey this sense of dread and anxiety through changes in tone of voice as Braxton, the Signal-Man, responds to the questions of Darkin, a journalist interviewing him in hopes of a serviceable human interest story. Reading instructions include “almost hysterical,” “becoming hysterical,” or “with growing hysteria,” as Braxton relates his encounters with a specter warning him of impending disaster.

Generally known as a laboratory of sound effects techniques, the Workshop here relied on dialogue, rather than effects. The result is that the ghost story very nearly becomes a study of insanity; the ambiguities fade as the adaptor decides not to deal in noise. The warning bell, ringing in Braxton’s ears is not heard by the journalist or the play’s audience:

Darkin: It’s your imagination. The bell is not ringing—and probably, it has never rung at any other time except when some station wishes to communicate with you. 

Braxton: Listen! 

Darkin: I tell you, the bell . . . 

Braxton: Not the bell—outside—the ghost’s calling. 

Darkin: I hear nothing—save the moan of the wind in the wires.

And so do we, the wireless audience. In Tazewell’s dramatization, the specter is all but explained away, drowned in the airwaves without as much as a ghost of a chance to rise before us. What haunts me now is the fact that, just after listening to this play, I came across the headlines about the deadly train crash in the Balkans. I’m sure Tazewell’s journalist would term it a coincidence, as dull and comfortless as such reasoning might be.

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