Earwitness for the Prosecution

Being that this is the anniversary of the birth of Guglielmo Marconi, a scientist widely, however mistakenly, regarded as the inventor of the wireless, I am once again lending an ear to the medium with whose plays and personalities this journal was meant to be chiefly concerned. Not that I ever abandoned the subject of audio drama or so-called old-time radio; but efforts to reflect more closely my life and experiences at home or abroad have induced me of late to turn a prominent role into what amounts at times to little more than mere cameos. Besides, “Writing for the Ear” is a course I am offering this fall at the local university; so I had better prick ’em up (my auditory organs, I mean) and come at last to that certain one of my senses.

The English lexicon amply documents the western bias against listening, generally “seen” as being secondary to sight. Compared to the commonly used “eyewitness,” for instance, the expression “earwitness” sounds rather unusual. What’s more, it is rejected by my electronic dictionary and, when typed in defiance, promptly marked as a spelling error. That is perhaps the victorious eye thumping its nose at the once superior ear, which, prior to the invention of the printing press, played a greater or at any rate more respected role in the sharing and absorption of information than it does in this our age of gossip and hearsay. If the always favored ocular proof cannot be discovered, it is the eyewitness report that carries more weight than the overheard.

I am going to refrain from channeling McLuhan, however, and concentrate instead on a notable fictional witness whose testimony was brought before an audience in the strictest sense of the word. I am referring to Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, a courtroom melodrama initially conceived as a short story and subsequently adapted, albeit not by Dame Agatha herself, for US radio, whose early experiments in courtroom dramatics have been previously discussed here.

According to the Wikipedia, the “very first performance of Witness for the Prosecution was in the form of a live telecast which aired on CBS’s Lux Video Theatre on 17 September 1953. Now, this is accurate only if Witness is meant to denote Christie’s stage play, rather than her story. The latter had already been dramatized nearly four and a half years earlier. Produced by NBC’s Radio City Playhouse, it was broadcast on this day, 25 April, in 1949.

Such a hold has visual storytelling on our imagination today that it is difficult to approach this audio performance of Witness without seeing before one’s mind’s eyes the features and the legs of the legendary Marlene Dietrich (of whom I have seen quite a bit this year [see my movie lineup on the right] and to whose voice I intend to devote my next podcast). Then there is that prominent scar in the face of the titular character, more prominent still than Ms. Dietrich’s invaluable German accent. Can a sound-only adaptation without access to Dietrich’s features or voice succeed in rendering Christie’s cheeky deception?

Unlike the character of Leonard Vole, the accused, whose innocence is laid on rather too thickly by David Gothard in the Radio City Playhouse production to escape the listener’s suspicion, the mysterious woman who comes to his aid (ably portrayed by theater actress Lotte Stavisky) might just manage to pull the wool over your ears. The radio dramatization handles the challenges of duping the audience, both the listeners at home and in the fictional courtroom, remarkably well, the scar being made audible in the gasp of its beholder. Like the members of a jury, when called upon to examine accusations and protestations of innocence, the listener deals with interpretations of reality, on someone’s word taken for an otherwise unknowable “it.”

I confess, though, that, as much as I value my hearing, I frequently feel compelled to see for myself; which is why, on the anniversary of Dame Agatha’s birthday, I went up to her room at the Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul last fall and had a look. There wasn’t much to see, really; not so much as an air of her presence. And, after paying the concierge who escorted us up to room 411, which the enterprising management has shrouded in a mystery of its own, I felt as if I were getting a box on the ear for not having had more sense.

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