Up to My Eyes in Dog-eared Books

This is one of those rare, lugubrious days of landscape-swallowing fogginess on which you might as well retreat, brandy in hand, into the confines of your small but reassuringly familiar study. My thought being as opaque as the wintry sky, my mind as obnubilated as the mist-shrouded hills, I have put aside all semi-intellectual or quasi-artistic endeavors for the moment. Instead, I busy myself cataloguing the books in my radio drama library, another four dusty volumes of forgotten plays having arrived by mail yesterday. During my years of researching so-called old-time radio in New York City, I had access to several excellent public and academic libraries, however deficient my own.

While a vast number of recordings have been preserved, there are some plays you can only find on paper, among them rare pieces by noted American authors like Sherwood Anderson, who died on this day, 8 March, in 1941. Writing my dissertation, I was determined not to discuss at length any play I had never set my ears upon. The page seemed to be a poor substitute for a performance. Who, I ask you, would claim to know a movie having only read the screenplay? I thought. And yet, once your eye is becoming accustomed to the language of radio, you can almost hear the plays as they might have been produced.

Distrustful of my less than reliable memory, I used to photocopy much of what I read and carefully filed away each text for ready reference. After I had earned my doctorate and decided, propelled by romance, to move to the United Kingdom, I took those thousands of sheets out of their assigned ring binders, boxed them up, and posted them, along with most of my belongings, to be shipped overseas.

Upon my arrival in Blighty, I was not only confronted with stacks of paper (relieved to find them there), but with the problem of making a new and orderly home for them. Little did I know when I decided to be economic by dumping the old binders that the paper sizes in the UK differ from those in the US, that British sheet protectors are too narrow for American paper, and that such incompatibilities would spell many a tedious hour punching holes or cropping paper. Eventually, I resigned in frustration from such labors and resolved to ditch some of the copies in exchange for the originals, however obscure.

Tossing another photocopied script into the bin this morning, I noticed that the play thus preserved was broadcast on the first anniversary of Anderson’s death on this day in 1941. The piece in question is “The Test” by radio dramatist Joseph Ruscoll, and I have not yet come across a recording of it.

Produced by the Columbia Workshop, it concerns adolescent lovers Janet and Joseph who, thirty years after parting, are nothing but joyful memories and pangs of regret to one another. They separated as the result of a dare—the eponymous “test”—that was to prove Joseph’s love for Janet: would he give up his harmonica for their harmonious union? No, he would not stoop to accepting the challenge—and the two were twained no more. Through the miracle of the pre-cellular phone wireless, a radio commentator interviewing both brings about a reunion of sorts. After all, radio was, as Gerald Nachman put it, “yesterday’s internet”:

Narrator: And you never spoke to him again, Janet? 

Janet. Never. (Sorrowfully)

Narrator: Or you to her, Mr. Pike?

Joseph. I had my pride. 

Narrator: Or you to her, Mr. Pike? 

Joseph. I had my pride. (Lowly)

Narrator. (Sighs) And that was thirty years ago?

Janet. (Flaring up.) Pride! If he had really loved me, he wouldn’t have had any pride!

Joseph. (Flaring up in turn) And if she really loved me, she—what about her foolish pride?

Janet. (Indignantly) Foolish?

Joseph. (Crying out) Foolish! Foolish!

Janet. What do you think, Mr. Narrator?

Narrator. (Sadly) I think you were both very, very foolish.

Perhaps, we’d better put our keyboard to some special use tonight by searching for old friends or else put it aside altogether, seeking instead the company of neglected loved ones rather than dwelling in the sheltering obscurity of our inconsequentiality or sweltering in the ersatz heat of emboldening internet anonymity. I write for myself and strangers—but I live for a hug and a smile.

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