Leaving His Ears Behind, E. M. Forster Steps Inside a Distant Echo Chamber of the Marabar Caves

Well, I wonder whether they will get here tonight. The troupe of the Johannesburg Market Theatre, I mean. Two weeks ago, they were supposed to take me to The Island; instead, they seemed to have gotten stranded somewhere else. I am all set to go, notwithstanding a lingering headache, brought on by alcohol and technology. As sobering as the experience might have been, I succeeded at last in putting my third podcast online. It conjures up the voices of a number of silent screen actresses; among them Mary Pickford, whose Little Annie Rooney was flickering on our screen this weekend, along with a 1924 production of Peter Pan, featuring the aforementioned Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily.

Both of these films are adaptations; but, whether you are familiar with the original or not, they are engrossingly cinematic so as to draw you in rather than draw your attention to their second-handedness. To me, an adaptation succeeds if it manages to make me forget its lineage, at least upon first inspection. I prefer to take in first and take on thereafter, to give a re-production a chance to stand on its own without forcing it to stand up against a text from which it more or less freely borrows.

Now, so-called old-time radio drama depended even more heavily on borrowed material than the movies. With schedules to be filled for weeks on end, there was great demand for stories, but a relatively short supply. Storytellers were, by and large, not paid enough to be original; given the governing principle of commercial sponsorship and the broadcasters’ insistence on groping for the largest audience possible, radio writers were discouraged from attempting anything new. In fact, they were even conservative in their approach to adaptation.

On this day, 12 June, in 1949, the NBC University Theater presented its version of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Intent on proving its literary fidelity, a little passage was cut right through this play. And out walked none other than E. M. Forster himself. The dramatization, as one critic remarked, bore so little resemblance to the novel as to have “missed the boat completely”; as such, it was as much in need of an endorsement as it was unworthy of it. Yet, the listener might feel tempted to conclude, if Forster did not mind lending his ear and commenting on the play, it surely could not be quite as “cumulatively degrading to all concerned—author, producer, and audience” as the captious critic made it out to be.

In fact, however, Forster did not comment on the adaptation at all; he did not even mention it. Instead, he gave a brief lecture on his novel and its significance—a lecture that was taped and inserted into a performance he had not himself auditioned. Remarking on the partition and independence of India and Pakistan, Forster expressed himself “thankful” that his novel was “out of date.” Listeners to the University Theater might not have noticed at all, considering that there was so little left of the debate with which Forster’s novel is concerned.

Entirely squandered in this uninspired adaptation are the aural potentialities of the Marabar Caves. Unlike film, radio drama is not obliged to impose concrete images on a writer’s vision. Like the novel, it allows its audience to co-create those images or to resist them in order to realize the metaphorical potentialities of language.

The caves are such a metaphor; they are an echo chamber for a clash of cultures, the site of cultural blindness where the false shelter of ignorance caves in on itself. Without resorting to much sound effects trickery, the radio adaptation could have suggested the horrors of Marabar—the reverberation of one’s own voice drowning out all others in a choric recital of an ode to blindness.

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