Bringing It Home: Arch Oboler’s "Visitor from Hades"

There will be seven of us tonight. For the first time since I moved into the small house halfway up in the Welsh hills (back in the autumn of 2004), these walls and the hedge surrounding the garden will encircle something approaching a crowd. Unless, of course, one subscribes to the view that three suffice to form such a gathering, an adage suggesting that any two people enjoying each other’s company will find a third party to be an intrusion on their happiness—or their private misery. The American melodramatist Arch Oboler played around with this idea in “The Visitor from Hades,” a thriller broadcast on this day, 13 July, in 1943.

“The Visitor from Hades,” which is no comment on the reception of that noted (and, some think, notorious) world leader during his stopover in Germany today, tells the story of a married couple who are less than embracing of each other. They have quarrelled too much in quarters too close not to be visited by doubts about their relationship. On the day Mr. Oboler chose to dramatize, the two are ready to murder one another, or at least threaten as much in their fierce argument.

Now, you might expect that some such attempt will be made in the course of the play. Whether to clarify positions or simply to captivate its audience, relies on violent confrontations, on concrete manifestations of differences that, in many a radio thriller, were settled with guns—the implement eight out of ten sound effect artists recommend. Okay, so I made up that piece of statistic; but firearms sure were popular in dramas depending entirely on sound—on speech, noise, and silent intervals just long enough to make you wonder who among the duelling debaters went down and who might have succeeded in making this most definite of statements.

“The Visitor from Hades” forgoes such a connubial shootout. The violence is audible, all right; but it is the sound of smashed glass that puts an end to the name calling between Dora and her husband, Sam. In a domestic dispute, anything handy may serve as a missile when remarks seem to miss the mark. Has Dora been hurling something more tangible than insults? Has Sam beaten her to it? Or has some third party, fed up with the bad-neighborly bickering, smashed one of their windows? Perhaps, as is so often the case in the deus-ex-machinations of the melodramatist, the intervening force has been coincidental to this fight. Just what kind of story does this sound tell?

The listener is given some time to speculate about this turn of events, ambiguities that generally make for the most thrilling moments to be enjoyed in the theater of the mind. Two things are certain at this stage in the play: the couple have heard something crash and, as a result of this disruption, have stopped confronting each other. You might say, if such puns are acceptable to you, that they have been soundly defeated. Now, they are forced to face the intruder, the titular “Visitor.”

The two are terrified by his presence. It is a voiceless, soundless presence that prolongs the listener’s sense of uncertainty about what exactly is happening between or to them. The shocking experience of discovering an intruder in their none-too-happy home, the play suggests, is teaching Dora and Sam a lesson about their marriage; confronting the depth of their hatred is helping them to rekindle their love.

I have never been an admirer of Mr. Oboler’s work, partly because he was so immodest about its artistic merits and social significance. Such pretensions aside, he was an efficient craftsman and propagandist whose plays succeeded in the aural medium precisely because they were made for it. “The Visitor from Hades” is one of Oboler’s smarter performances. It goes beyond the claptrap of many of his sonic potboilers, whether they were written, like this particular piece, for the thriller series Lights Out! or for one of his more sober anthologies of propaganda dramas. Its premise, at least, is perfectly suited to the medium; it is entirely radiogenic in its conjuring up of a menacing presence that is not only invisible but soundless (and as such difficult to contain and conquer).

It is a play in which an idea can take center stage. Despite its perfunctory dialogue and an insistence on doing away with its intriguing ambiguities in a rather graceless and overstated manner, it generates something else besides mere surprises and is more lasting in its effect on the listener’s imagination.

To my mind, however, it also generates some doubt as to the sincerity of its sentiment. After all, it was Oboler who, during those war years, insisted on raising the spectre of hatred and unleashing it in the living rooms of America. It was the hatred toward what might destroy us that Oboler argued to be essential to victory, an approach to wartime propaganda that made him quite a few influential enemies and, according to him, caused the sudden cancellation of one of his play cycles. Oboler counted too much on American’s potential for hatred to be demonstrating the triumph of love.

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