Obituaries often begin like this: The world (the art world, the theater world, the world of miniature golf, or what have you) has lost one of its leading, brightest, most prominent so-and-so’s. But that won’t do. Not if the so-and-so is Norman Corwin. The formula would not be worthy of him, for one. Stylistically alone, it would be un-Corwinian; it would be Hummertsian. Nor would it fit the occasion of commemorating his life’s work since the formula cannot contain it. The application would lead instead to inaccurate, misleading statements such as this one: The world of radio drama lost one of its greatest writers.
True, Norman Corwin, who died on 18 October 2011 at the age of 101, was a leading light in that dark theater of the mind. But he was also a journalist, a teacher, a screenwriter, a director, a producer, and, what has yet to get into the heads of those who assemble the anthologies of American Literature, a poet. He inhabited and enriched many worlds—and yet, for the past sixty years or so, Corwin has not been known the world over. You might say that we, most or millions of us, lost Norman Corwin decades ago because we, or some somebodies we permitted to act in our stead—though not on our behalf—decided that the world Corwin helped create and never forgot should be written off, abandoned, and depopulated of its talent like the ghost of a mine whose ore is no longer deemed worth our digging . . .
In the United States, the world of radio drama is such a lost world—and those, like cretaceous me, who keep on living in this world even if we can no longer live by it, might as well be dwelling on some dark star in a parallel universe. Unlike today’s listeners, radio writers did not have that choice back in the late 1940s, unless they were content, as Corwin put it in retrospect, to be “apolitical except for strong support of home and motherhood,” “inoffensive to the world in all its parts (although in radio practice, exceptions are often made in the case of minority-opinion groups which cannot possibly reply)” and prepared to “keep within the pale of clichés of character and situation so traditional there is a mellow patina on them.”
“I believe that artistic radio, whether commercial or otherwise, will not develop without a willing and interested leadership on the part of those who control programming, budget and time,” Corwin exclaimed in 1947. “That is all.”
That was all. One year later, Corwin felt compelled to remind those in control that he was still there, waiting and willing to take on another creative assignment—another Twenty-Six by Corwin, perhaps, another One World Flight. “I Can Be Had,” he announced; but those in “control” would not have him back.
“The artists are around, and there is nothing occult about the process of dialing their telephone numbers and talking it over.” Apparently, no one bothered to touch that dial. After years of restraint, commercial radio was eager to get richer even it that meant becoming culturally less enriching. It was a short-lived strategy of cashing in before television would take over and pretty much close the theater of the mind for good. Never again would a single play written for the ear reach and move an audience of sixty million in no more than two performances—as Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph” did in 1945.
Forced to exit network radio because executives no longer commissioned verse plays, dramatic documentaries or travelogues in sound—three genres that are quintessentially Corwinian—Norman Corwin began travelling between worlds, the worlds of film, journalism, and the academia. Television, at least initially, was too small, too restrictive a realm to attract, let alone accommodate an imagination as vast as his. To Corwin, the audiovisual upstart was but a “poor bastard among the arts, having the benefit of neither the full scope and mobility of cinema, the immediacy of the legitimate theatre, nor the powerful suggestibility of radio’s unillustrated spoken word.”
The American theater of the mind may have been shut up, but Corwin’s mind stayed open. For over sixty years, he kept on journeying, searching and yearning. That’s the spirit that sustains you until you’re 101. Lucky are those who encountered him along the way. I prize the words of encouragement he wrote to me when, a few years ago, I dusted off my obscure dissertation on the American play to share my chapter on Corwin with the very man. I think of those words whenever I feel that, not being quite as eager as he to venture elsewhere, I lost my way; that I am lost to most of the image-minded world, untravelled, unraveling, yet all the while revelling in the “unillustrated spoken word.” I got the words, all right; Corwin had the wisdom as well.
I shall leave this entry in my otherwise image-filled journal “unillustrated.” I imagine Mr. Corwin appreciates the gesture . . .
(For those ready to catch up or on, the entire run of Twenty-Six by Corwin is currently being rebroadcast by John and Larry Gassman of Same Time, Same Station.)