On This Day in 1945: An "Undecided Molecule" Becomes a Matter of Radio Activity

Well, if I said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. Maybe I should say it a thousand times more and keep on saying it. Recently, the British equivalent of the destructive piece of ill equipment now installed at the White House managed to revive what might very well put an end to civilization: nuclear energy. As I looked across the fields at the green hills of Wales, some of which vistas are spoiled by clusters of wind farms, I thought what I would do if an atomic power station were to rise there. I don’t suppose leaving behind the deceptive serenity that is our garden (pictured above) would be forceful enough a statement, since moving would not bring about any change for the environment that is going to suffer at the greedy hands of narrow minds who think that today’s economy is more important than the ecology of tomorrow.

I can and will get passionate about nuclear energy, and, in this one matter, I accept neither counter-argument nor levity. That is why I fail to get much of enjoyment out of “The Undecided Molecule,” a “rhymed fantasy concerning dangerous developments among the elements” that was presented on US radio on this day, 17 July, in 1945. With a cast including Groucho Marx, Vincent Price, and Sylvia Sidney, it was given a lavish production by Columbia Presents Corwin under the direction of its author, Norman Corwin—the very man who just a few days ago offered me further advice regarding my writings about old-time radio.

“The Undecided Molecule” is a courtroom drama, of sorts. At the center of it is X, the titular molecule charged with endangering the universe by failing to find its place in the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdoms. At the suggestion of the Defense, the representatives of each kingdom are called forward to assist X in making up its mind.

Now, the play is a charming piece of nonsense, nonsense of the kind made meaningful and literarily respectable by Victorian poet Edward Lear. To call it utter “nonsense,” in short, does not in any way belittle such joyful wordplay. And yet, I feel that Corwin’s play is belittling a matter of life and death. To do so was not his intention, as he assures readers of one of his anthologies of radio plays, in which the script of “The Undecided Molecule” was published.

“The atomic bomb was several weeks east of Hiroshima when this was first broadcast,” Corwin pointed out; “so it wasn’t that which got me writing about Mr. X.” Yet the testing of such nuclear might in New Mexico was already a thing of the past when the play went on the radioactive air. However they were conceived or intended, these cheerful lines are burdened by a history of destruction:

Oh, dear! Oh, dear!
The cosmic alarm!
Which means, I fear,
Some woeful harm
Is afoot or awing
In the universe.
Some deplorable thing,
Some active curse
Like a falling sky
Or a new star-cluster,
Been banged up by
A cluster-buster.

Thus cries Corwin’s Vice President in Charge of Physiochemistry when the alarm is sounded that the order of the universe has been disturbed. It is a wake-up call that might be suggesting

[. . .] a dried-up sea
Or another Ice Age for a spell,
Or maybe it’s only a freezing hell.
On the other hand it might possibly be
That Hitler is alive and well.

Hitler, of course, was good and dead. Two months earlier, Corwin had invited Americans to dance around his grave. It was in this atmosphere of relief that the Atomic Age was welcomed and the trifle of Uranium comically exploited. Soon after, this new instrument of horror and psycho-terror would inaugurate the cold war with a blast some believed could end all wars. How disillusioned many who fought the Second World War must have felt when they realized that there was no end to destruction, the preparation, prevention and clean up of which is such lucrative business. I was reminded of this last night, watching the post-war drama The Best Years of Our Lives. I am reminded of it now, as I look out into the fields, in awe of molested molecules that might decide our future or what there is of it.

In “The Undecided Molecule,” things turn out all right for the kingdoms of nature; but the matter is rather too heavy to be made light of in this way. With nuclear trouble mounting, it seems dangerous to make a molehill out of a molecule.

6 Replies to “On This Day in 1945: An "Undecided Molecule" Becomes a Matter of Radio Activity”

  1. Red face, I chided a pal in schoolWe can in sublime peace rest as a ruleThat not every minute in time rhyme likeSaid case of Undecided Molecule.


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