My bookshelf, like my corporeal shell, has gotten heavier over the years. The display, like my waist, betrays a diet of nutritionally questionable comfort food—of sugar and spice and everything nice. Now, I won’t take this as an opportunity to ponder just what it is that I am made of; but those books sure speak volumes about the quality of my food for thought. There is All About Amos ‘n’ Andy (1929), The Story of Cheerio (1937), and Tony Wons’s Scrap Book (1930). There is Tune in Tomorrow (1968), the reminiscences of a daytime serial actress. There’s Laughter in the Air (1945) and Death at Broadcasting House (1934). There are a dozen or so anthologies of scripts for radio programs ranging from The Lone Ranger to Ma Perkins, from Duffy’s Tavern to The Shadow.
My excuse for my preoccupation with such post-popular culture, if justification were needed, has always been that there is nothing so light not to warrant reflection or reverie, that dismissing flavors and decrying a lack of taste is the routine operation of the insipid mind. That said, I am glad to have added—thanks to my better half, who looks after my dietary needs—a book that makes my shelf figuratively heavier rather than merely literally so.
The book in question is The Eternal Light (1947), an anthology of twenty-six plays aired on that long-running program. It is a significant addition, indeed—historically, culturally, and radio dramatically speaking.
In the words of Louis Finkelstein, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, under whose auspices the series was produced, The Eternal Light was a synthesis of scholarship and artistry, designed to “translate ancient, abstract ideas into effective modern dramatics.”
In his introductory essay “Radio as a Medium of Drama,” Morton Wishengrad, the playwright of the series, defended broadcasting as a valuable if often misused “tool.” He did so at a time when, in the disconcerting newness of postwar opportunity and responsibility, radio was increasingly—and indiscriminately—dismissed as the playground of Hucksters, to name a bestselling novel of 1946 whose subject, like Herman Wouk’s Aurora Dawn(1947), was the prosperity and self-importance of the broadcasting industry in light of the perceived vacuity of its product.
“An automobile does not manufacture bank-robbers,” Wishengrad reasoned, “it transports them. It also transports clergymen. It is neither blameworthy because it does the first nor is it an instrument of piety because it does the latter. It is merely an automobile, a tool.
What the medium needed—and what the times required—were writers who had “something to say about the culture.”
According to Wishengrad, there was “nothing wrong” with the techniques of radio writing. He noted that serial drama, derided and reviled by “demonstrably incompetent” reviewers, had great storytelling potential: “Here are quarter-hour segments in the lives of people which could transfigure a part of each day with dramatic truth and an intimation of humanity instead of presenting as they now do a lolly-pop on the instalment plan.”
A “lolly-pop on the instalment plan”! To paraphrase Huckster author Frederic Wakeman’s parody of radio commercials: love that phrase. Wishengrad is one of a small number of American radio dramatists whose scripts remain memorable and compelling even in the absence of the actors and sound effects artist who interpreted them. Of the latter’s métier Wishengrad wrote: “Sound is like salt. A very little suffices.” He cautioned writers, in their “infatuation with its possibilities,” not to “drown” their scripts in aural effects.
Wishengrad’s advice to radio dramatists is as sound as his prose. “Good radio dialogue,” he held, should come across “like a pair of boxers trading blows, short, swift, muscular, monosyllabic.” Speeches, he cautioned, ought not to “be long because the ear does not remember. There is quick forgetfulness of everything except the last phrase or the last word spoken.”
While Wishengrad made no use of serialization in The Eternal Light—as much as the title suggests the continuation and open-endedness of the form—his scripts bear out what he imparts about style and live up to his insistence on substance. Take “The Day of the Shadow,” for instance. Produced and broadcast over NBC stations on 18 November 1945, the play opens: “Listen. Listen to the silence. I have come from the land of the day of the shadow. I have seen the naked cities and the dead lips. Someone must speak of this. Someone must speak of the memory of things destroyed.”
The abstract gives way to the concrete, as the speaker introduces himself as the “Chaplain who stood before the crematorium of Belsen.”
I have buried 23,000 Jews. I have a right to speak. I stood the last month in Cracow when “Liberated” Jews were murdered. I have no pretty things to tell you. But I must tell you.
The “plain, and written down, and true” figures—appropriated from the “adding machines of the statisticians”—tell of the silenced. But, the Chaplain protests, “[l]et the adding machines be still,” and let the survivors—the yet dying—speak; not of the past but of the continuum of their plight, of the aftermath that comes after math has accounted for the eighty percent of Europe’s Jewish population who were denied outright the chance to make their lives count.
At the time The Eternal Light was published, radio drama, too, was dying; at least the drama with a purpose and a faith in the medium. To this date, it is a body unresuscitated; and what is remembered of it most is what is comforting rather than demanding, common rather than extraordinary. Shelving the candy, resisting the impulse to reach for the sweet and the obvious—the lolly-popular—I realize anew just what has been lost to us, what we have given up, what we have forgotten to demand or even to long for . . .