Well, I have no knack for it. Storytelling, that is. Not that I haven’t dabbled in fiction and drama—everything from attempting that great American novel (a Germanic variation, mind you) to co-authoring a college soap opera for public access television. I even wrote my memoirs, at age sixteen, and passed them around to my classmates so that they might have something sensational to read. Teenage angst notwithstanding, I was fairly certain that my story wasn’t finished; and I didn’t bother pretending it had a beginning I could recall, a middle I could make sense of, or an end I could foresee.
When it comes to connecting loose strands of thoughts to form something amounting to a composition, the essay is my yarn of choice. I guess I find it easier to write about or around something than getting around to writing something worth writing home about.
Making sense is as satisfying a creative activity as it is problematic. Just when you have put it all in a nutshell (granted, a cocoanut shell, given my prolixity), you should force yourself to go nuts and smash it all to pieces again. It is the only way to find out whether you have been rather too proud of the husk at the expense of ensuring the proper development of the kernel.
I doubt that I could take on the challenge of rendering the essence of someone else’s life, for instance. I would be too conscious of the act of imposing a structure, of connecting the dots and erasing others for the sake of providing a clear picture. After all, a dotted line with a beginning, middle, and end is an Aristotelian construction that, the blogging phenomenon notwithstanding, most of us still expect in a written composition. It is a dotted line on a contract between reader, writer, and subject I can’t bring myself to sign.
All this occurred to me again last night, when I watched the television premiere of Stan, a biographical drama about the friendship of comedy stars Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In one hour, Stan creates a double portrait and sums up the relationship between its two sitters. Indeed, even the sitters are doubled—Stan and Ollie at the end of their lives looking back at the beginning and height of their career in film. I am looking forward to discussing the challenges of writing such a piece with its author, Neil Brand, who will be our houseguest next weekend. Perhaps, there’ll be an essay in that.
In the meantime, this is getting rather too long as an exposition to what I wanted to relate in the first place. Something about soap, and stars, and radio, the hook of which is the anniversary of the closing of a great Hollywood institution on this day, 7 June, in 1955. The institution in question was the Lux Radio Theatre, a highly popular program featuring adaptations from stage and screen as performed by practically all the great actors of the studio era.
Now, historical facts are not particularly interesting to me. You can always look those up, as I did this morning. To reproduce them is no great feat, unless you also question their veracity or ponder their significance. There is not enough storage space in my cranium to squander it on trivia. Besides, there’s a fine reference text on the subject by Connie Billips and Arthur Pierce, called Lux Presents Hollywood, which I frequently consult.
To me, the most fascinating aspect of the Lux program is its design, which is rather too intricate to be called a three-act drama interspersed with toilet soap commercials. The Lux Radio Theatre, which was my introduction to old-time radio, is not so much a dramatic program as it is a theatrical one. Instead of attempting dramatic realism, it created the illusion of putting on a show. It celebrated its own composition, which brought together the diverging strands of promoting Hollywood and pushing soap, of packaging its familiar (if at times unrecognizable) stories with bits of backstage talk that gave listeners the impression of being theater insiders, of acting as creators and patrons of a show, rather than simply being its audience. After all, something more than sitting at home enjoying free entertainment was expected of them.
The masters of ceremony (most notably among them Cecil B. DeMille) reminded listeners that their loyalty to the sponsor’s product kept it going. The stars, who promoted themselves as well as the studios that employed them, came across as working citizens rather than distant idols. They, too, used that soap, or at least claimed as much when they delivered the sales talk. Sometime, as the host did not hesitate to point out to the home audience, they were even spotted in the crowd of the Music Box Theater, from where the broadcasts originated.
It all sounds like a friendly family business; in fact, DeMille was practically born into the job of hawking the wares of Lord and Lady Leverhulme (the show’s sponsors, pictured above), considering that, as he pointed out to the listener, the motto on his family crest was “Lux Tua Vita Mea.”
Now there’s a story of British industry and American showmanship, a success story not unlike the fortuitous if complicated Hollywood teaming of Englishman Stan Laurel with that big guy from Georgia. I won’t be telling it, though. I am too busy weaving the voices heard on the Lux into another podcast, this one featuring Marilyn Monroe’s 1947 broadcasting debut as an “intermission guest” on Lux—before the young starlet had even been cast in a single motion picture. Three-and-a-half decades later, such a commercial association did wonders for the career of Michelle Pfeiffer, who made a name for herself peddling the aforementioned soap in the early 1980s by creating the illusion that she already was a big name in Hollywood.
Our lives are compositions co-authored by a great many people, which is why some of us are so eager to assume control over this muddle of influences by turning it into our very own story. It’s the victory of the elaborate shell over the elusive kernel.