“. . . there must come a special understanding”: To Corwin at 100

Today, American journalist and radio playwright Norman Corwin turns 100. Whether that makes him the oldest living writer to have had a career in radio I leave it to fact-checkers and record book keepers to determine. I do know that, seventy years ago, he was already the best. Oldest. Best. Why not dispense with superlatives? Corwin has been set apart for too long. Instead, an appreciation of his work calls for the positive and the comparative, as his plays deserve to be regarded at last alongside the prose and poetry of his better-known literary contemporaries.

No survey of 20th-century American literature can be deemed representative, let alone definitive, without the inclusion of some of Corwin’s Whitmanesque performances. What has kept him from being ranked among the relevant and influential writers of the 1940s, and of the war years in particular, is the fact that, during those years, Corwin wrote chiefly for a medium that, however relevant and influential, was—and continues to be—treated like a ghetto of the arts in America.

You might argue that the metaphor is not altogether apt, especially if you bear in mind the distinguished authors and playwrights who did turn to—or agreed to be pulled into—broadcasting during the Second World War; among them poets Archibald MacLeish, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Stephen Vincent Benét, as well as dramatists like Maxwell Anderson, Marc Connelly, and Sherwood Anderson. And yet, even their scripts are rarely acknowledged to be contributions to literature, the American airwaves being thought of as a cultural site quite beyond that field.

At best, dramatic writings for radio are handled as historical documents that, by virtue of being propagandist or populist, could hardly be regarded as having artistic merit or integrity. As something other—and less—than literature, they were as quickly obliterated as they were produced, stricken from the records so as not to tarnish the reputation of erstwhile writer-recruits most of whom exited the radio camp well before V-J Day.

Norman Corwin never deserted that camp. Rather, the camp was shut down, raided by McCarthy, all but razed to make way for television. Sporadic returns to the old playing field notwithstanding, he was forced to move on. Yes, the air was—and is—Corwin’s playground. For all their wartimeliness, his 1940s plays were never mere means to an end, even if end is understood to mean an end to the war that gave them a reason for being.

To gain an understanding of that past is not the only good reason for being in the presence of Corwin today. Rather than promoting uniformity, which is a chief aim of propaganda, Corwin’s plays challenge the commonplace, encourage independent thinking and the voicing of ideas thus arrived at. Take “To Tim at Twenty,” for instance. It is hardly one of Corwin’s most complex, ambitious or experimental works for radio; in a note to a fellow writer, published in Norman Corwin’s Letters (1994), the playwright himself described it as “the lowest common denominator of simplicity.” Simplicity, in this case, is an achievement. Quietly startling, “To Tim at Twenty” bespeaks the humanity, intellect, and dignity of its author.

Written for the CBS Forecast series, a string of pilot broadcasts designed to test audience responses to potential new programs, the play first aired on 19 August 1940, when it starred Charles Laughton, for whom “To Tim” was expressly written, and Elsa Lanchester. Newly arrived in California, Corwin was staying at the couple’s Brentwood home at the time.

As he shared in a letter to his sister-in-law, he felt “kind of lonely” in Hollywood, and was “getting tired of singlehood.” In times of war—and to Laughton and Lanchester August 1940 was wartime—the thought of growing up and raising a family is compounded by the realization that the future is darkly uncertain instead of rich in potentialities. So, Mr. Corwin wrote a letter.

To Tim at Twenty is an epistolary play, a radiodramatic genre of partially dramatized speeches addressed to an implied audience. The proxy listener, in this case the unheard Tim, suited Corwin since indirection made whatever was conveyed come across as something other than an act of overt indoctrination. The addressee also provided him with a veil behind which to enact his personal conflicts as he contemplated his maturity, mortality, and legacy.

The letter writer is Tim’s father, a British gunner spending a sleepless night in the “barracks of an RAF squadron on the northeast coast of England”; as the narrator-announcer informs us, he is “leaving at dawn on a mission from which there can be no return.”

Once the United States entered the war, lesser writers, melodramatist Arch Oboler among them, would use this kind of set-up to remind American civilians of the sacrifices made for them overseas, of the bravery that must be honored and matched at the home front. Tim, we expect, is asked to honor his father’s memory. Instead, the letter he is to receive tells him that the men of his father’s generation “haven’t made out any too well” in the business of “the running of the earth.”

At the time the letter is composed, Tim is just five years old. His father made a “special point” of asking his wife “not to deliver” it until 1955, at which time he might have had the “man to man” talk with his son that war denied him.

Sentimental, seemingly pacifist messages were not unheard of at the time. They were welcomed by isolationists who counted on big business as usual—and commercial radio, which shunned the controversial, was very big business indeed; but “To Tim at Twenty” suggests something alien to those determined to preserve the status quo. Instead, the belated address of the Englishmen, who knows better than to have faith in things as they are, is meant to instill his son—and Corwin’s listeners—with a “fuller appreciation of women.” To Marshall, they are authorities of humanity superior to men because “there must come a special understanding of the dignity of life to those who grow it in their vitals.”

As the dramatic flashbacks reveal, the lessons he shares with his son were taught Marshall by his wife, who suggested that the voices of the many might have drowned the shrill cries of the few, the “wanton wills” that were not countered by “man’s vast raw materials of love and tenderness and courage” in time to avoid deadly conflict. “There are several kinds of valor,” Tim is to learn from his dead father, “and the least is the kind that comes out of the hysteria of battle.”

I suspect that it was easier to write this message in 1940 than it was to understand it in 1955, when America’s leader was a five-star general, when superpowered dominance was the manly objective of the day and the “appreciation of women” was more a matter of the male gaze than of political influence or workforce equality. By then, there was no place for Corwin in network radio. Since his climactic “Note of Triumph” in 1945, to which nearly half of the US population was estimated to have tuned in, his voice has been heard by a comparatively few—the fortunate few who, by lending him an ear, are gaining a “special understanding.”

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