Old-time Radio Primer: D Stands for Drama

Most of us can do without it. In our everyday lives, at least, where it strikes us as exasperating, discomfiting and generally inopportune. “Drama,” I mean, which follows “Crooner” in this, my Norman Corwin inspired “Radio Primer.” If encountered outside the theater and within the bounds we think of as our reality—a dichotomy well worth questioning—drama may be defined as any of those interludes during which other people insist on making a scene and drawing us into the action. We’d much rather leave those moments of emotional turmoil to the professionals, who get paid and applauded for enacting them.

There is plenty of drama going on elsewhere, I am pleased to report. After Wednesday night’s great evening of spectacle, taking in Gormenghast, I am looking forward now to Athol Fugard’s The Island, which is being staged at the same local venue next Tuesday. And only yesterday we got our hands on tickets to see Kevin Spacey at London’s Old Vic in A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill (whose Ah, Wilderness! I discussed only a few days ago). Now, that Moon won’t rise until the fall. For more immediate drama, for private screenings and stages set under my direction, I’ve got the radio. So, what can those listening to old-time radio drama expect? Let me put it to you in the obligatory “Primer” rhyme:

Epics in a digest,
And jokes for the New Deal,
Thrills to fill the war chest,
And ample time for spiel. 

Interludes commercial,
And bowdlerized O’Neill,
And nothing controversial,
Since that makes sponsors reel. 

Broadway for the homebound,
And hoaxes sounding real,
And living rooms turned fairground—
That’s radio’s appeal.

This, at least, is why old-time radio appeals to me. Of course, radio drama is still being produced; and however marginalized in the US, it enjoys ongoing popularity in the UK and elsewhere. For those who can’t be bothered to plan ahead for a trip to the Moon, for those who want their future here and now, radio continues to offer cheap flights of fancy. At this moment—or whenever it is convenient for you to listen in—BBC Radio 4 presents M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart’s Abrogate, a radio play that imagines a post-Bush era in which Hillary Clinton takes over as US President and a Congressional committee is set up to investigate just what went wrong during the previous administration (a recording of which is available online for about a week).

Now, I don’t suppose anyone tuning in would confuse Abrogate with anything resembling reality, even though I have had my own War of the Worlds experience not too long ago, taking fiction for fact. As I was reminded last night, watching Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman (1931)—the story of a media-savvy evangelist avenging her father’s death by duping the public—radio was a medium to challenge these boundaries. It could make listeners believe by creating an alternate reality that, rather than being set aside for public display, seeped right into the ear canal and had the verisimilitude of daydreams and night terrors.

Having to leave our private sphere to see a performance, on stage or screen, assists in keeping drama separate from so-called real life, as does the opening and shutting of a book, which turns what we experience in fiction into a world apart. Beginning in the 1920s, the airwaves did away with the being away or setting apart; from the first live broadcast of a stage play (The Wolf, heard on 3 August 1922), the radio brought drama home; and throughout the 1930s and ’40s it did so daily, serially, and at times all too convincingly.

There were debates about the psychological effect of radio melodrama on women and children, the adult male apparently being deemed too levelheaded (or thick-headed, perhaps) to be thus influenced. Thrillers in particular—those “bloodcurdling broadcasts” that daily “gurgle[d] through the loudspeaker”—came under attack for threatening to “breed a race of neurotic impressionables” by virtue of radio’s “power to play on the ear with horror effects,” while so-called “washboard weepers”—or soap operas—had the youngsters’ elders in fits of pity and despair.

The creators of radio theater sure knew how to make a scene, the mind being a ready supplier of props and probabilities. Will such dramatics convince me tonight that Hillary Clinton got (or might get) into the White House? We shall hear . . .

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