Delayed Exposure: A Man, a Monument, and a Musical

Well, I don’t know why I took it. This picture, I mean. Over the years, I must have walked past that plaque hundreds of times without paying attention to it. A few months ago, returning for a visit to my old neighborhood in Manhattan, it insisted I take notice at last. I went to an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 91st Street. Erected in memory of the journalist W. T. Stead, this modest cenotaph stands opposite the museum, on the Central Park side of the avenue. I had no knowledge and little interest in the life of Mr. Stead, which (the plaque tells you as much) ended spectacularly aboard the Titanic. Last weekend, some three months after my return from New York, the man insinuated himself into my life once again, this time in the guise of a character in a Welsh musical.

Amazing Grace, staged at the local Arts Centre, tells the story of Evan Roberts, a Welsh miner turned preacher who, in the words of Mr. Stead, became the “central figure” of the early 20th-century “religious awakening in Wales.” Stead followed the movement, interviewed Roberts, and reported about this so-called Welsh Revival. In Mal Pope’s play, he appropriately serves as narrator and commentator on Roberts’s fabulous rise and his equally sudden disappearance from public view.

Unfortunately, Stead doesn’t get all that much to say or sing about Roberts, and the musical, which, in this particular production, featured the aforementioned Peter Karrie as a fierce reverend envious of the enigmatic upstart, suffers from a serious case of anticlimax: whether daunted by his fame or no longer driven to preach, Roberts simply shuts up—a silencing that doesn’t make for a rousing finale. Unimpressed by Pope’s 1980s-styled power ballads and his by-the-numbers approach to biography, I was easily and gratefully distracted when I saw Mr. Stead walking across the stage and back into my conscious, as if to demand the leading role denied to him in this production. Now I find myself compelled to follow up on Stead’s life and writings.

As it turns out, Stead was fascinated by the spiritual, by premonition and second sight, by ghostly doubles and “long-distance telepathy.” For instance, he wrote about a case in which a telegram, then presumably the fastest means of telecommunication, was several hours slower in conveying a story than a message alleged to have been transmitted by a “disembodied spirit.” It is the extra-scientific (rather than the supernatural) speculated about by those growing up in the age of Darwin, an age of industrialism and shattered systems of belief. Researching Etherized Victorians, my study on old-time radio, I came across one such comment on modernity by one of Stead’s contemporaries, Rudyard Kipling, whose 1902 short story “Wireless” marvels at psychic phenomena while questioning scientific progress: telepathy as the ultimate wireless connection.

It seems Mr. Stead is anxious to continue the debate from the beyond. I have unwittingly become a ghost writer for the late journalist; recalling him to life in word and image, I am merely his chosen amanuensis.

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