A (Blind) “Writer at Work” Faces His Audience

The next essay I am going to publish here will mark another anniversary for this journal, it being the 250th entry. Instead of dancing around that less than monumental milestone, I’ll try to explain why I continue to keep writing and how I keep up with whatever I choose to write about—the ostensibly “out-of-date.”

Today, I’ll leave it to another writer to share his experience. That man is Hector Chevigny, historian, magazine writer, and playwright of over one thousand plays, most of them for radio. On this day, 12 October, in 1956, the CBS Radio Workshop invited listeners to eavesdrop on Chevigny in a piece titled “A Writer at Work.”

According to fellow radio playwright-historian Erik Barnouw, Chevigny began writing for radio in 1928. In 1936 and 1937 he was director of the CBS Script Division in Hollywood. His plays were heard on prestigious programs such as The Cavalcade of America and Arch Oboler’s Free World Theater. During the war, Chevigny contributed numerous scripts to propaganda series such as Treasury Salute. In the early 1950s, he took over as head writer for the daytime serial The Second Mrs. Burton (1946-60), an assignment that called for five scripts a week.

Since The Second Mrs. Burton took up much of Chevigny’s time, the Workshop chose to visit the writer at his Gramercy Park home in New York City and capture on tape how he planned and plotted one chapter of the serial (scripts for which can nowadays be found at New York City’s Public Library). On hand to introduce and interview the playwright was the actress then portraying Terry Burton, a fictional character so prominent that she at one time kept her own weekly radio column (as shown below). The equally prominent actress was radio stalwart Jan Miner (previously mentioned here).

However promising the premise, the resulting take-your-listeners-to-work broadcast makes radio’s soap factory sound even more dreary than any of its assembly line productions, considering that it involves listening to a weary and frazzled Chevigny struggling to come up with something “bright and cute” for an upcoming Thanksgiving-themed chapter in his serial.

Apparently, he churned out his scripts well in advance; but work on the Thanksgiving script was off to a slow start. “Oh, darn these Holiday scripts,” we hear Chevigny grumble. In keeping with the expectations of producers and sponsors, the Burton family was scheduled to spend the day on the verge of a tryptophan-induced stupor; and the prospect of having to extract drama from drumsticks and dollops of mash was not a task a playwright could cherish. Among the dictated lines are literary pearls like “And are you ready for more turkey, Terry, dear?” and “Sound Effects: tableware as wanted.”

The tableware was not wanted; and to get the family away from their plates, Chevigny ultimately decides upon a dream sequence in which Mr. Burton finds himself celebrating Thanksgiving anno 1656, a scene played out with cartoonish sound effects and a clash of Colonial and contemporary Englishes.

What listeners do not get to hear, however, is the story behind the noise and spoken words: the story of a writer who lost his eyesight. This would have been on opportunity for the Workshop to explore how becoming sightless, as Chevigny did in 1943, changes a writer’s attitude toward and influenced his approach to working in a non-visual medium. Did this alleged deficiency help Chevigny – the author of an autobiography titled My Eyes Have a Cold Nose (1946) – to develop a keener ear for radio dramatics? “Understandably,” Chevigny wrote in that book, published a decade prior to the Workshop broadcast, “the subject of the perceptions of the blind is one of particular interest to me as a writer specialising in radio.” Chevigny recalled the early days of radio, still being sighted at the time,

when the broadcast play was just coming into being.  I remember well the arguments we used to have as to the best methods of trying to tell a story on the air and how carefully we listened to the pioneer attempts of the British Broadcasting Company and the American networks to achieve a technology.

Little of that experimentation was still being conducted after the end of the Second World War. And the Workshop, despite its title, did little to build on its roots in the mid-1930s, when the series was deserving of the term “workshop.”

Was staying on at a time when most writers of note had abandoned the medium a matter of sticking to what he knew, even though he knew and experienced radio differently back then? Was blindness at the heart of Chevigny’s radio fidelity? After all, The Second Mrs. Burton was the last radio serial to leave the airwaves.

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