Well, sir, it’s a few minutes or so past six o’clock in the evening as our scene opens now, and here in the garden of the small house halfway up in the Welsh hills we discover Dr. Harry Heuser setting the table for a barbecue dinner. Sorting the flatware, he still keeps an eye on Montague, his Jack Russell terrier. Meanwhile, the side dishes are being prepared in the kitchen and the telephone is ringing. Listen.
That is how my evening dinner preparations might have sounded if they had been fictionalized by Paul Rhymer, creator of radio’s Vic and Sade, a series of sketches (previously mentioned here) that had its debut on this day, 29 June, in 1932. Some sixty years before Seinfeld renovated the television sitcom, Rhymer constructed a fictive world whose four main characters could truly go on about nothing like nobody else—without as much as a situation. Like this, for instance:
UNCLE FLETCHER. [. . .] Don’t s’pose you ever knew Arnie Gupples, Vic?
VIC. Name’s not familiar.
UNCLE FLETCHER. Sadie?
UNCLE FLETCHER. Arnie Gupples worked in a shoe store there in Belvidere years ago. I’ve bought shoes off’n Arnie. Far as that goes, I could name you off a dozen parties that bought shoes off’n Arnie. Hey, Sadie, your cousin Albert Feeber bought shoes off’n Arnie Gupples.
UNCLE FLETCHER. (Stoutly) Your cousin Albert Feeber bought shoes off’n Arnie Gupples.
Don’t expect the other shoe to drop any time soon. This is as much a rumination about birthday presents as it is an occasion for one of Uncle Fletcher’s stories, yarns that became tangled as soon as he set out to spin them. For all their lazy folksiness, Rhymer’s wireless tappings of the small house have been likened to the Theater of the Absurd. In the estimation of noted storyteller Ray Bradbury, these “conversations” are “more brilliant in their pointlessness, circling around nothing, than anything written since by Pinter or Beckett.” Radio raconteur Jean Shepherd followed up this assessment by calling Rhymer’s series an “authentic picture of American life” while arguing them to be “far closer to Ionesco in spirit than [. . .] to Thornton Wilder.”
That Rhymer inspires such name dropping is due in part to his radiogenic use of the unseen and non-speaking character—the “phantom” of Mrs. Harris. In Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, Mrs. Gamp appeared to be in “constant communication” with a woman whose existence remained a “fearful mystery” and stirred “conflicting rumours,” since none had “ever seen her.”
Giving voices to only four of his creations, Rhymer managed to introduce hundreds of such talked-about “phantoms” into the small house—an imaginary dwelling fit for anyone dwelling on and dwelling in imaginings. Its architecture never changed, despite undergoing countless extensions. Like our memories, it became cluttered and crowded, familiar and bewildering, age-worn yet ever new. Here, conjured up again for our amusement, is the aforementioned Arnie Gupples.
UNCLE FLETCHER. Arnie Gupples give Gwendolyn Yowtch this fancy shoe scraper for her birthday. They were engaged to be married at the time. Well, sir, first shot outa the box Gwendolyn went to scrape some mud off her shoes with that shoe scraper, twisted her ankle, had to have the doctor, got mad, an’ give Arnie the mitten. Two months afterwards she married Art Hungle an’ moved to North Dakota. Arnie felt so bad he quit is job at the shoe store. I heard afterwards he finally married a rich woman that made him learn to play on the cornet.
VIC, SADE, and RUSH. Uh.
UNCLE FLETCHER (thoughtfully) Way the world goes, I guess.
VIC, SADE, and RUSH. Um.
Which concludes another missive from the small house halfway up in the Welsh hills.