Enter Clemence Dane

Okay, so I got momentarily distracted tonight watching American Idol. It’s the only television show I am following these days; but immediately after the twelve anxious men have sung their way into or out of the finals (we are about two days late here in Britain), I am going to lower the blind to screen Hitchcock’s Murder! The arrival of the Gracie Fields DVD set earlier this week has let to a change in my movie diet, with Hollywood fare being put on ice for the duration. Not that Fields’s Love, Life and Laughter was such a gem; it struck me as a poor, distant cousin of The Smiling Lieutenant (recently released on DVD in the US). Last night, I screened Alfred Hitchcock’s peculiar romance Rich and Strange (1931). So, when I noticed that today marks the anniversary of the birth of Clemence Dane, co-author of Enter Sir John, the novel upon which Hitchcock’s Murder! is based, I knew what we would be watching tonight.

Born in England on this day, 21 February, in 1888, the woman who called herself Clemence Dane was a prolific and highly popular novelist-playwright whose works were adapted for screen and radio. The Campbell Playhouse, for instance, presented a dramatization of Dane’s 1931 novel Broome Stages, starring Helen Hayes. Dane’s best-known work, A Bill of Divorcement (which you may read here), was produced by the Theater Guild (1 December 1946) and adapted for Studio One (29 July 1947).

Dane’s screenplays were reworked for broadcasting as well; the Lux Radio Theater soundstaged both “The Sidewalks of London” (12 February 1940) and ”Vacation from Marriage” (26 May 1947).

What I did not know until today is that, like W. H. Auden (to acknowledge the birthday of another, far more enduring writer), Dane also conceived plays especially designed for listening. Did they “do” radio? is a question invariably on my mind when I consider the cultural contributions of 20th-century writers and actors who made a name for themselves in other branches of the performing arts. The answer, in Dane’s case, came to me from this latest addition to my bookshelves, British Radio Drama, 1922-1956 (1957) by BBC radio drama department head Val Gielgud (last featured here).

According to Gielgud, Dane’s The Saviours, was “without doubt” the “most distinguished contribution to Radio Drama during 1941.” Why these plays are no longer presented by the BBC is a mystery to me. Despite the continued popularity of radio drama in Britain, recordings of classic broadcasts are far more difficult to come by, whereas copies of the published scripts for The Saviours, a series of seven propaganda plays on the theme stated in the title, are readily available in second-hand bookstores online. Published radio plays, of course, are always second hand.

So, I resort to an irreverent account by playwright-actor Emlyn Williams (aforementioned) of his experience being cast by Gielgud in one of Dane’s earlier play, Will Shakespeare: An Invention in Four Acts (1921), broadcast in 1937 on the anniversary of the Bard’s birth (23 April). “In spite of the talkies,” Williams remarks in his autobiography Emlyn, “British radio was still a momentous force.” The thought of going “live” before an unseen audience of three million people was “paralysing.” Worse still was the atmosphere in the soundproof studio, a “dungeon” filled with microphones resembling a “regiment of robots,” each ded eye turnd bright red and stared at its victims.”

Present in the studio was Clemence Dane, whom Williams describes as an

outsize author with a handsome generous face topped by hair as overflowing as her talent. It had been scooped hastily back into a bun and seemed about to come tumbling down and be sat on.

In a cascade of black to the floor, with a corsage of big happy flowers which accentuated her size, she looked as if, were the world not larger than she was, she would cradle it in her lap. A photographer advanced to arrange the cast round her chair, just as she was handed a vast bouquet which she embraced with a beautiful smile. She was a mother at a prize-giving where all her children had ended up First.

After all, this formidable woman is rumored to be the model for Madame Arcati, the delightfully eccentric psychic in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (discussed here). Thanks to Williams’s first-hand account, I can picture Clemence Dane in the studio, even if I am not likely ever to hear her plays for radio. To think that the world is dead to the theatrical events of the air, that these offerings are being kept out of earshot. It’s enough to make a body scream bloody Murder!

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