Nothing ends a joyful gathering more abruptly than an emergency phone call. We were taking in the sun on this mild afternoon here in Ceredigion when one in our party was being told that her mother had a wasp in her tea and was rushed to the hospital. I refrained from relating the story I had been told a few months ago during our trip to Cornwall, where I heard that the same dietary supplement had meant the end of a beloved pet. Best wishes and hopes for a speedy recovery was all I could impart at parting. True, I prefer looking on the bright side and make light of dark matters—an approach to life it has taken me decades to adopt. Still, sometimes the bright side is downright garish and irritating, a neon artifice that cons or comforts none. Take the story melodramatist Arch Oboler shared with US radio listeners on this day, 3 August, in 1942.
The play was “Dark World” and was soundstaged for the anthology program This Is Our America. Heard in the leading role was screen actress Kay Francis, who is enjoying considerable critical attention these days and is being celebrated in one of my favorite webjournals, Trouble in Paradise. On that August day back in 1942, Ms. Francis had several million Americans in her spell—but what a dizzying one it was.
As might be expected, particularly given the title of the series in which it was featured, “Dark World” is a comment on the horrors of warfare. It certainly was a change from the jingoism of the day, delivered by the creator of the fiercely pacifist and similarly themed “Johnny Got His Gun,” adapted by the same playwright. And yet, Mr. Oboler was one of the chief advocates of hate as a motivator in wartime; and “Dark World,” which was first produced nearly two-and-a-half years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, is ambivalent, which is the academic term for murky and muddled.
“Dark World” opens as two nurses lean over and contemplate the body of a dead patient, the paralytic Carol. “I just don’t get it!” one nurse tells the other. “All the time you’ve been on the staff, I’ve never seen you act this way over losing a case! And especially this one—blind—paralyzed—helpless. . . .” “That’s just it!” her colleague responds. “For twenty-five years—from the hour she was born—Carol Mathews had nothing but loneliness and misery! And then to die like this—never having known anything but darkness—it isn’t fair—it isn’t fair!” Has Carol’s existence been worthless? Is her death a relief? It is the dead woman herself who has the last word on the matter:
Hello, Amy. . . . Hello, Amy. . . . No, you can’t hear me, can you? And yet I must speak—while I’m still here close to you. You said I’d never known anything but darkness. . . . You’re very wrong, Amy. There was never any darkness in my world. How cold there be? The skies that I saw never clouded. The flowers never faded. The trees were always green and fresh. I saw a lovely world in my darkness, Amy—lovely. . . .
It was a world inhabited by the words of Victor Hugo and Joseph Conrad, “and all the rest,” Carol insists; “theirs weren’t just words printed on white pages as you read them to me! They were white, flaming magic that carried me so far away from here—to the sea. . . .” It was a “world of space and freedom, where each man had a dignity of self so great the he could not bear the hurt of other men who are all as himself.” Carol’s friends were the “Brownings—oh, such charming people—and Shakespeare—I used to argue with him! And Keats”; and “Walt Whitman—yes, he was here, too. . . . He taught me not to be afraid!” and “Schubert and Brahms and Mozart and Tschaikowsky—all of them—my friends!”
Carol claims to have “made a world” in her” darkness,” a world “where everyone walk in loveliness—where things were as they might some day be.” Thanking the nurse for her pity, she reminds her that “pity is for those who have nothing—and I had a world where all was beauty.”
Is “Dark World” advocating isolationism? Is it a perverse escape fantasy in which passivity, however involuntary, is deemed preferable to resistance and strife? In the triumph of mind over matter, Oboler’s play celebrates the medium; and in its sentimentalizing of inaction, it takes the side of the radio audience, those having stories read to them, stories that take on a life in the imagination of each receptive listener. It was the very passivity and solitary play that most propaganda drama, including Oboler’s own, worked hard to combat.
Dark is the world in which a case of paralytic blindness may be presented as a prelapsarian vision.