Well, they should all be out tonight. The stars, I mean. One of the great joys of living in the country is seeing millions of them lighting up the sky. On a clear night, you can read by the light of the moon. I grew up in an industrial and smog-shrouded region of western Germany; and when I moved to brightly lit New York City, I got to see no more than a dozen of those distant suns, even on a cloudless night. As if to make up for that firmamental deficiency of our modern world, the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan once offered Americans an opportunity to commune with the universe by taking a microphone to the heavenly bodies.
On this day, 6 June, in 1938, the planetarium was the site of a dramatic radio broadcast of The Planets, a verse play inspired by the Gustav Holst’s popular orchestral suite and written especially for the medium by New York City poet Alfred Kreymborg. Soundstaged in the planetarium’s Solar Room and broadcast over WEAF and affiliated NBC stations, The Planets was performed by seasoned New York stage actors with experience in radio theatricals, including Charles Webster, Burford Hampden, and Selena Royle (pictured above, all dressed up for an earlier radio play, The Finger of Darkness).
Unfortunately, no recordings of this impressive event seem to have survived; and, as much as I argued against such readings only yesterday, I am left with nothing but the publish script, some cues and an on-the-air-conditioned imagination, to gather how it might have sounded.
Kreymborg took to the airwaves because, as he put it, the “world we live in now is so closely knit that a sudden event touches all people, no matter how far removed from one another. Our local or personal spheres have become universal.” The impending war in Europe was such an “event” touching all—and radio was the medium to bring faraway crises into the living rooms of America. The allegory of The Planets, according to its author,
concerns the earth from the World War up to now [that is, 1938] and then tomorrow. An old astrologer, pointing his glass toward the heavens searching for peace somewhere, is the central figure. In the course of his starry adventure he encounters the planetary gods, roaming the earth as in Grecian times: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.
The gods represent the stages of world political events from 1931 to 1938, with Uranus, the father of magic, standing for the global crises of the years just prior to the Second World War. As the earth spins from one age of war to another, the astrologer attempts to dissuade soldiers from going into combat, but dies prophesying “[a]nother hell”
Far greater than the hells of yesteryear,
And greater than the hells of ancient time
When gods laid heaven low and men fought men.
The play, which one contemporary reviewer dismissed as a “diatribe against war,” proved prophetic in this regard; but its author was less of a visionary in his hopes that the theater of the mind might some day attract noted poets and mature into an art akin to the drama of ancient Greece. “We have all been too impatient with radio in the past,” Kreymborg remarked, “and have based our judgment on the very worst things we could listen to.” Today, we base our judgment of old-time radio on the average thriller and sitcom, rather than on the occasional experiments that, however flawed, suggest what the aural arts might have been or may yet become.
Unless we are content to dig in the muck of culture or delve into the mire of war, it might be worth our while to keep reaching for the stars . . .