Starting next week, I shall once again take in a few shows on and off Broadway. In the meantime, I do what millions of small-townspeople used to do during the 1930s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s—I listen to theater. Since the 1920, such makeshift-believe had been coming straight from the New York stage, whether as on-air promotion or educational features. Aside from installing an announcer in the wings to translate the goings-on and comings-in, it took the producers of broadcast theatricals some time to figure out what could work for an audience unable to follow the action with their own eyes. When that was accomplished, in came the censors to determine what could come to their ears. The censors were in the business of anticipating what could possibly offend a small minority of self-righteous and sententious tuners-in who would wield their mighty pen to complain, causing radio stations to dread having risked their license for the sake of the arts.
Few established playwrights attempted to re-write for radio. One who dared was Kenyon Nicholson, whose Barker, starring Walter Huston and Claudette Colbert delighted Broadway audiences back in 1927 (and radio audiences nearly a decade later). On this day, 19 May, in 1946, the Theater Guild on the Air presented his version of Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, with John Garfield as Joe, Leo Carillo as Tony, and June Havoc (pictured) as Amy.
Now, I have never seen a stage production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning They Knew; nor have I read it. Like most tuning in that evening, I would not have known about the tinkering that went on so that the story involving a doomed mail-order May-December romance could be delivered into American living rooms—were it not for Nicholson’s own account of what it entailed to get They Knew past the censors.
Nicholson got to share his experience adapting They Knew, one of his “favorite plays,” in a foreword to his script, which was published in an anthology of plays produced by the Theater Guild on the Air. According to the inexperienced adapter, his “enthusiasm for the job lessened somewhat” as soon as he began to undertake the revision:
Radio is understandably squeamish when it comes to matters of illicit love, cuckolded husbands, illegitimate babies, and such; and, as these taboo subjects are the very core of Mr. Howard’s plot, I realized what a ticklish job I had undertaken.
After all, Messrs. Chase and Landry remind us, as the result of a single listener complaint about this adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon, which retained expressions like “hell” and “for god’s sake,” several NBC Blue affiliates were cited by the FCC and ordered to defend their decision to air such an offensive program. Nicholson was nonetheless determined “that there could be no compromise. Distortion of motivation as a concession to Mr. and Mrs. Grundy of the listening public would be a desecration of Mr. Howard’s fine play.”
It was with “fear and trembling” that Nicholson submitted his script. Recalling its reception, he expressed himself “surprised to find the only alteration suggested by the Censor was that Joe seduce Amy before her marriage to old Tony.”
The “only alteration”? Is not the “before” in the remark of the pregnant Amy—”I must have been crazy, that night before the wedding”—precisely the kind of “compromise” and “[d]istortion” the playwright determined not to accept? Nicholson dismisses this change altogether too nonchalantly as a “brave effort to whitewash the guilty pair!” Rather, it is the playwright’s whitewashing of his own guilt in this half-hearted confession about his none too “brave” deed.
The censors sure knew what they did not want those to hear who never knew what they did not get.