On This Day in 1939: The Folks at 79 Wistful Vista Channel Wimpole Street

Heavenly days! Thanks to modern-day technology (and, I suppose, a surplus of leisure) I have unearthed a spiritual bond that, thus far, has escaped literary scholars and old-time radio enthusiasts alike. Now it can be told: on this day, 12 September, the broadcast antics of Fibber McGee and Molly strangely intersect with the romance of Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elisabeth Barrett. Yes, on this day, both couples eloped—the Wimpole Street escapees in 1846 and the whimsical everybodies from Wistful Vista in 1924.

The latter celebrated their lucky breakout on their 15th wedding anniversary by attempting to restage the happy event—an elopement without the fuss of being detected and chased by opposing elders. Yet despite the blessings of their high-toned neighbor, society lady Abigail Uppington—who assured them that the “affair” would “never be criticized,” even though the couple was “unchased”—the folly of it all resulted in a series of outrageous and none too enchanting complications. Well, the whole thing was Fibber’s idea to begin with . . .

One of the earliest and most successful situation comedies on US radio, Fibber McGee and Molly (1935-59) sounds still remarkably fresh today, thanks to the witty scripts by Don Quinn (whose Halls of Ivy is the ne plus ultra in radio sitcom sophistication) and the winning performances of its leads. And while it’s no collection of “Dramatic Monologues” or “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (“How do I love thee” and all that), the aural comedy-romance Quinn whipped up each week is no mere escapist fluff. “Tain’t funny, McGee”—Molly exclaimed often enough, suggesting more serious undertones not picked up by those merely hoping for an amusing half-hour.

After all, both the Brownings and the McGees inspired great thinkers. As Garrison Keillor recalls in WLT: A Radio Romance), the Norwegian philosopher Søren Blak argued the “boastful Fibber” to be a “paradigm of western man”; his “famous loaded closet” (which first opened to listeners some six months after the McGee’s 15th wedding anniversary), “represented civilization and all its flotsam and loose baggage, while the childlike voice of Molly, bringing the man back to reality,” seemed to be “the voice of culture in its deepest and most profound incarnation, that of the adored Mother, the Goddess of Goodness, the great Herself.”

Alas, the McGees have been all but buried under the “flotsam and loose baggage” of popular culture, erstwhile idols hidden beneath the rubble that is the empire of the air.  No, “tain’t funny, McGee!” And yet, however muffled their voices, the heartbeats of Wistful Vista’s winsome twosome still reverberate among those ruins (as you can hear).

“Oh heart!” Robert Browning mused on an off day (in his own “Love Among the Ruins”),

oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole century of folly, noise, and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.

So, happy anniversary, Molly and Fibber!

On This Day in 1938: The Mercury Players “dismember Caesar”

“Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers,” Brutus implores his co-conspirators prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar. This line might have served as a motto for the Mercury Players when Orson Welles and company decided to adapt their stage success Julius Caesar for radio. They needed to butcher Shakespeare’s play, or at least trim it down considerably; and they were making such a sacrifice to accommodate a larger audience—millions who might not have had the opportunity to take in a production of such a play in their rural communities. It was the butchery of high art and a sacrifice to lowly commerce.

“O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar!” Brutus (played by Welles), exclaimed. “But, alas,

Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends,
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully.
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.

The 11 September 1938 broadcast of Julius Caesar is remarkable for several reason. To begin with, it offered an alternative to the not always inspired programming of the commerce and common denominator oriented networks. And not only was the radio-readied production an ingenious exercise in adaptation but a poignant and timely commentary on the crisis in Europe that was about to plunge the world into war.

11 September 1938 was certainly no less innocent than the day we now commemorate as 9/11. “This is the history of a political assassination,” we are told about the story of Julius Caesar, a “dictator for life” upon whom were bestowed “honors” that “seemed to exceed the limits of ordinary human ambition.” As in the Mercury stage production, the radio adaptation dropped the togas to lay bare the urgency of Shakespeare’s drama, a play that was at once a revenge fantasy and a call to reason. Could a people under the rule of a despot be expected to rise against their leader? Could the forceful removal of such a ruler bring about a new and better world?

To drive home that the broadcast was not an invitation to a literary soiree but a call for a political debate, the Mercury Theater on the Air drew upon the services of H. V. Kaltenborn as a narrator. Kaltenborn was among the most prominent and respected radio commentators of his day. What he uttered was news, not ancient history; and it was certainly not highbrow hooey. His commentary, based upon Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (the source for Shakespeare’s play) but sounding thoroughly contemporary, helped to bridge the gaps in this considerably abridged script, which was acted out by the chief players original cast (Welles as Brutus, Martin Gabel as Cassius, George Coulouris as Antony, and Joseph Holland as Caesar). Kaltenborn assumed a role well suited to Shakespearean theater, which relied on eloquent words rather than elaborate stagecraft to relate its stories.

“How many ages hence” Cassius remarks shortly after the assassination, “Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” In the Mercury Theater on the Air production, these lines are uttered by Brutus, Welles’s ego being comparable to that of Caesar. Yet, rather than playing the ham and exulting the hoped-for glories of the crime—“peace, freedom, and liberty”—Welles’s Brutus is subdued and plaintive, adding a question mark to the lines. After all, the very “peace, freedom, and liberty” of the West was at stake if fascism continued to spread in Europe and threaten the world. A voice like that of the noble, thoughtful conspirator Brutus might not be heard in future “states unborn” or “accents yet unknown.”

Of course, the Mercury Players also had to deal with the limits of liberty and freedom at home—and on the air. In a climate controlled by advertisers and the FCC, a climate that did not allow for overt political commentary, the Mercury Theater on the Air production of Julius Caesar war remarkably bold and as cunningly executed as Caesar’s assassination. To the “common eye” (or ear), Brutus insists, “We shall be purgers, not murderers.” The Mercury Players’ butchery of lines and characters was a worthwhile sacrifice . . .

Could a people under the rule of a despot be expected to rise against their leader? Could the forceful removal of such a ruler bring about a new and better world? Surely the crisis in the Middle East raised similar questions—but when was the last time CBS television presented a play like Julius Caesar?

On This Day in 1933: An Old Pro(boscis) Turns to Radio

As the folks over at the History Channel reminded me, the Schnozz got his first whiff of the airwaves on 10 September 1933. A replacement for fellow vaudevillian Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante headlined the Chase and Sanborn Hour for several weeks, then returned as host the following spring. Having already appeared in about a dozen films (including The Phantom President, costarring Claudette Colbert and George M. Cohan, pictured right, with Durante center stage), the radio newcomer was further cross-promoted in MGM’s Meet the Baron, in which he stars opposite “Baron Munchhausen” (comedian Jack Pearl), one of the most popular radio personalities of the day. By the end of 1934, Durante was a household name; and when the musical Anything Goes opened that November, Cole Porter certified the comedian’s fame with these lines from “You’re the Top”:

You’re a rose,
You’re Inferno’s Dante,
You’re the nose
On the great Durante.

To be sure, “You’re the Top” proved more durable than the “great Durante.”  Still, at that time, the Schnozz was at the top of his game; and those with a proboscis for show business—Billy Rose and the Texas Oil Company—decided to take him to the Big Top. As I discuss in “Etherized Victorians,” my doctoral study on so-called old-time radio, the growing influence and commercial appeal of network radio led to the development of big-budgeted programs that, to encourage repeat listening, were becoming more tightly structured than the loosely formatted musical-variety programs.

After the success of NBC’s Maxwell House Coffee-sponsored Show Boat, a musical comedy-drama serial was believed to be the ticket. The Texaco financed Jumbo Fire Chief Program (1935-36) was one of the most extravagant serials to go on the air. It was broadcast live on Tuesday evenings from New York’s 4500-seat Hippodrome, the site of Billy Rose’s production of Jumbo, a star vehicle for the Broadway experienced Durante.

With a book by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, a score by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, and a large orchestra conducted by Adolph Deutsch—assets the radio announcer did not fail to point out—the nostalgic Jumbo romanticized the empires of show business that talent consuming Depression-era radio—including programs like Jumbo Fire Chief Program—raided and all but razed.

“However dark the clouds,” press agent “Brainy” Bowers (Durante) insists in the premier broadcast (29 October 1935), “people can always pay fifty cents for a peek at the pomp and glitter of old Roman days. The circus—what a spectacle, what a gold mine!” The series’ central story line (of a tax-burdened circus struggling to survive) suggested otherwise—and even though radio listeners did not have to pay as much as a nickel to take in the big show, the program fizzled and the whole venture failed to pay off for either Billy Rose or Texaco.

What struck me when I first listened to the program was that the audience inside the Hippodrome was asked not to applaud so as not to interfere with the broadcast. Soon, of course, such background noises of approval were understood to be an asset (they still reverberate today on the laugh tracks of sitcoms). But all that hadn’t quite been worked out yet when the Schnozz took to the soundstage. Imagine, there stood Durante before a crowd of thousands—and not one among them was to give him a hand . . .

On This Day in 1943: Silent Screen Legend Dies on the Air

You had the right to remain silent, dear

Some thirty years after making her debut in silent movies, Lillian Gish became all voice when, on 9 September 1943, she appeared before the mind’s eye of listeners to CBS’s thriller anthology Suspense. Gish’s performance in the play “Marry for Murder” was announced as one of the “rare radio appearances” by a star who “occupied a unique place in the affections of moviegoers ever since the screen first became of age.” Together with her sister Dorothy (left, in a picture taken from Billips and Pierce’s informative Lux Presents Hollywood), Gish had twice performed on the then new and ambitious Lux Radio Theatre, assuming the part of Jo in “Little Women” (21 April 1935) and recreating one of her most famous silent screen roles in “Way Down East” (25 November 1935)—but that had been years ago in the early days of network drama.

In the late 1930s, she had twice been a panelist on the celebrity quiz program Information, Please and was later to act in a number of dramatic anthologies and variety programs, including Arthur Hopkins Presents and the Theater Guild on the Air. In a medium that demanded and devoured talent daily, her isolated guest spots had been few and far between. Even more rare had been her roles in film after the demise of her mute métier (Top Man, her fourth sound film, was to open in the US a few days after the “Marry for Murder” broadcast); so, the sounding of a silent screen belle must have remained somewhat of a novelty act to many American listeners. Unfortunately, the evening’s entertainment had little of the grace and passion of Miss Gish’s celebrated on-screen histrionics.

Heard again tonight on the WRVO Playhouse, “Marry for Murder” is a routine affair, an is-she-or-ain’t-she thriller that requires little guess work from the audience and yields even fewer surprises. It is a story told too often—and often better, too—on Suspense. Still, the tone of Ray Collins’s narrative and the ominous sounds of the fog horn add some slight intrigue to the Way Down East yarn of recent widow and newlywed Letty Hawthorne, “a frightened, neurotic creature who seemed destined to be a perfect victim” for her domineering husband.  Living rather close to “Philomel Cottage” or taking more than a page out of “The Diary of Sophronia Winters,” aren’t they?

The story is told from the perspective of Letty’s friend Phil (Collins), an attorney who was called upon to assist in drawing up a new will for Letty’s husband Mark. When Letty expresses herself anxious to compose a will as well, Phil—a lover of whodunits—speculates whether Mark might not have urged his wife to do so in order to do her in and get her dough. Heard through a filter, Letty’s words “but if I’m found dead” repeat in Phil’s ear until he is convinced of Mark’s villainous intentions. That is, until . . .

Since the three-character play opens with the announcement that Letty is dead, the directions the plot could take are rather limited (unless we are to distrust Phil’s narrative altogether). Radio thrillers often suffer from simplifications, restrictions demanded not only by the lack of time allotted to each play in a medium catering to commerce but by the difficulties aural drama poses for an audience that struggles to take in complex information when playing a puzzle by ear.

“Marry for Murder” might still have been an intriguing character study, like those starring the formidable Agnes Moorehead. Ms. Gish, alas, overdoes the contrast between mousy and monstrous, and her line readings are not always assured. Her Letty here bears little resemblance to her haunted namesake in The Wind (1928), her final silent. Now, I won’t stoop to saying that the actress was a Gish out of water—but she was not quite in her element here. Let’s see whether I can manage to dig up a more satisfying anniversary tomorrow . . .

Collecting Thoughts; or, What I Learned About Blogging from Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza

Well, I’m back from my weeklong trip to the center of the Iberian peninsula (that is, a stay in Madrid, with an excursion to Toledo) and am pleased to report how invigorating it can be to go away, come face to face with one’s own ignorance, and return in a confusion of humility and inspiration—souvenirs to be put to better use than dust-gathering bric-a-brac. To be sure, I still cannot tell one Spanish monarch from another—except for the baby-faced Fernando VII and the big-nosed Carlos III, on the representation of whose none too prepossessing visages a fair amount of oil and canvas were expended. I still cannot order a Spanish meal without half-guessing what might end up on my plate—except that the tapas-and-cervezas cuisine is so lacking in variety as to render an extensive culinary lexicon unnecessary. And I still cannot relate to bullfights, flamencos, or devotional art—except that I know better than to reduce arcane passions to patent stereotypes. I did learn something about blogging, though—and it was the Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza who, however unwittingly, conveyed the lesson.

Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, of course, is the wife of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, the steel magnate-collector who displays his artistic riches at the magnificent Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, a generous sharing of his increasing wealth for which he gets amply rewarded in contracts throughout the city (you’ll notice the name of Thyssen wherever there’s a construction site—and there were plenty all over town).

Unlike her husband, the Baroness only started collecting in the 1980s. She seems to have a taste for the famous or nominal, but little sense of what is first-rate or exemplary. Her collection is overwhelmingly large and, for the most part, put together without much grace, wit, or discrimination. She bought up third-rate paintings of first-rate artists, apparently at great speed, and caught many a masterful painter on an off day. Her husband had an eye—she’s got the Euros. That, at least, was my impression when I walked through the vast and ultimately stultifying Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. So, what have I learned?

In a sense, a blog is a collection of thoughts. It may be regarded as a museum, a virtual storehouse of words and images that are culled from various sites, commenting, like all art does, on the world of today—be it society, politics or religion.  Many bloggers are savvy name-droppers; quite a few exploit their writing for advertising purposes; some are merely providing the odd caption to the works they borrow. Others, like myself, simply try to share what they care about but disseminate thoughts without quite knowing how to reach either a specific or general audience, without being fully aware of the potentialities of their enterprise.

In other words, not all bloggers are good curators of their thought museums. Their growing collections may lack direction or purpose—rendering all but useless what might be of some small service to the few or many; unless the viewer, aware of the individual pieces in the museum, has the freedom to steer past the profusion to approach directly what matters to her or him. In this respect, a virtual collection, like the online version of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, is more useful than a traditional one, since visitors can direct their curiosity into the presence of the works they choose to see or care to know about (as some of my readers did, Googling their way to what I wrote about Valentine Vox or The Free Company, for instance).

And yet, a collection falls apart as a result of such selective viewings, becoming as fragmented as the interests of the diverse public to which it is being made available.  How to keep an online journal like this together—and keep it going?

Any smart museum is, to some degree, self-reflexive about the collection it houses. A truly smart museum, like the Museo Lázaro Galdiano, acknowledges its shortcomings rather than trumpeting its ostensible merits. Over the next few weeks, I will try new approaches to collecting my thoughts for subjection to the splintering vision of the public gaze. I am aware, for instance, that broadcastellan is missing a unifying narrative arch, mainly because I do not want to turn this journal into an intimate if public diary.

Some of the connections between what I label “unpopular culture” and our (or my) present everyday seem forced or arbitrary precisely because the personal link between what I experience and choose to discuss has been obscured (why am I watching this or that film; why am I listening to a specific radio play or reading a certain book just now?).

Rather than becoming more personal, I am going to make more of an effort to relate to others by providing a historic connection to the works I choose to discuss without turning my musings into history lessons.

Thoughts can be gathered anywhere; in fact, Madrid’s streets are a veritable gallery of thoughts—to which above lines from Don Quixote, found on the Calle de las Huertas, attest. Words and images are dirt cheap and trivial unless a thoughtful collector tries to render them precious and significant.  Yes, it was the arbitrariness and the flaunting of Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza’s wealth that made me reconsider the acts of collecting, exhibiting, and sharing my humble thoughts.

“We interrupt this broadcast”; or, How to Be Away

Well, as I’ve been casting it broadly in the previous three posts, I’m off on a weeklong visit to Madrid. Sure, I could have taken my laptop along with me to continue my journal while away; or I might have taken a mobile phone to send messages and images (like the one here, of this morning’s glorious Welsh sunrise) on the go. Instead, I decided to leave both computer and phone at home and to sign off for the duration.

The privilege of being away appears to be one of the disappearing pleasures of privacy. It is a concept no longer readily grasped by those born in the cellular, wireless, and instant-message age. Perhaps that is why the television series Lost has become such a success (surely it is not the writing): to be unavailable to the world is now thought of as a loss tantamount to being shipwrecked. Treat yourself to a retreat some time. Avail yourself of a chance at being unavailable.  Experience the abandon of abandoning your everyday.  To have something to write home about . . . and keep it.

You don’t have to get all Piano Manly about your getaway. Just tell those you care about that you’re out of town or country and enjoy the freedom of being incommunicado. Tell the world to get lost, then shroud yourself in silence.  As long as there is someone or something worth coming back for, eventually . . .

“A symmetry of unborn generations”: A Guernica for Radio

One of the many attractions of Madrid I will make sure not to miss is Picasso’s Guernica (1937), the most famous 20th-century painting in the Reina Sofía collection. A report from the commonplace-turned-combat zone, Guernica is a piece of anti-totalitarian propaganda commemorating the world’s first civilians-targeting air attack: the 26 April 1937 raid on the busy market town of Gernika-Lumo, masterminded by General Franco and carried out by the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany.

Holding up to the sky my copy of Corwin’s play “They Fly Through the Air,” signed by its author

For a long time, the painting was kept out of Spain and was mostly on display at the MoMA in New York City, where, during the Vietnam War, it became a site for vigils held by members of the peace movement, one of whom went so far as to deface it with red spray paint. It was Picasso’s wish that Guernica be returned to his homeland only after the reestablishment of democratic rule. A swiftly executed and brutally manipulative commentary on modern warfare, it invites comparisons to the three best-known American verse plays for radio, Archibald MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Murder of Lidice,” and Norman Corwin’s “They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease.”

MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” in contrast to Picasso’s painting, overtly implicates the civilian population, including his radio listeners, castigating them for their supposed ignorance and inertia. As in “The Fall of the City,” MacLeish attacks those falling rather than sentimentalizing their plight. His are bold performances, but his cruel warning turns listeners eager for news into silent partners of war who are asked to “stand by” as they tune in while women and children, refusing to heed warnings of an impending blitz, are being attacked and annihilated:

You who fish the fathoms of the night
With poles on roof-tops and long loops of wire
Those of you who driving from some visit
Finger the button on the dashboard dial
Until the metal trembles like a medium in a trance
And tells you what is happening in France
Or China or in Spain or some such country
You have one thought tonight and only one:
Will there be war? Has war come?
Is Europe burning from the Tiber to the Somme?
You think you hear the sudden double thudding of the drum
You don’t though . . .

Not now . . .

But what your ears will hear with in the hour
No one living in this world would try to tell you.
We take you there to wait it for yourselves.
Stand by: we’ll try to take you through. . . .

Millay’s “Murder of Lidice” recalls the innocent lives of those slain by Richard Heydrich, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, in Lidice. Artistically, the play is indefensible and shockingly inept in its bathos. In Millay’s Grand Guignol of Nazi terror, Heydrich the Hangman, whom the villagers have assassinated, is heard, from the beyond, planning his revenge:

He howls for a bucket of bubbly blood—
It may be man’s or it may be of woman,
But it has to be hot, and it must be human!
Oh, many’s the sweet warm throat he’ll suck.

In “They Fly Through the Air,” Corwin’s narrator goes in search of a language appropriate to the negotiation of art and propaganda. As I point out in Etherized Victorians, the play is a response to the perversion of poetic diction by the fascist cause. Viewed from above, Mussolini reportedly remarked, exploding bombs had the beauty of a “rose unfolding.” Throughout the play, metaphors are at war with plain speech, both in the service of motivating the masses:

What words can compass glories such as we have seen today?
Our language beats against its limitations [. . .].

Our rhythms jangle at the very start.
Our similes concede defeat,
For there is nothing that can be compared to that which lies beyond compare.
You see? We are reduced already to tautologies.
It’s awe does that.
The wonder of it all has set us stammering.

What is the language of war? How does it differ from the idiom of peace? And how shall war—often furious but not always futile—be rendered, recorded, and remembered in words or images? When I look at Guernica this week, I will ask myself these questions. Quite possibly, I will shiver when exposing it to the limitations of my shrinking lexicon.

Flinging the Book: Archibald MacLeish, the Airwaves, and the Anniversary of Atahuallpa’s Death

Well, I thought I’d better carry on with my Spanish lessons, having discovered, upon leafing through the travel guides, that I am not merely linguistically challenged but culturally ignorant as well.

 According to one guidebook (admittedly, a someone dated volume), the citizens of Madrid—the madrileños—have a “lingering suspicion of foreigners” and are reluctant to speak English. Granted, it’s been a while since conquistadors rather than tourists filled Spain’s coffers, but the Spaniards have been known to be somewhat insensitive when it comes to other cultures. There sure is dirt under the old welcome mat.

On this day in 1533, for instance, Francisco Pizarro put an end to the Incan empire by doing away with emperor Atahuallpa. The Incas were not a chirographic people and did not appreciate having the book flung at them—especially not the good book. Intrigued by the thought that the demise of the Inca meant not only the loss of their aureate treasures but of their aural tradition, I flung my travel guides aside and tuned in again to one of the more ambitious if lesser known American radio series of the 1940s, Archibald MacLeish’s American Story.

MacLeish (above, right, in my impression of an image taken from Irving Settel’s Pictorial History of Radio), Pulitzer Prize winner for his poem Conquistador (1933), was one of the first American writers to take radio seriously and to encourage others to emerge from their ivory towers by broadcasting their choice words to the masses. After all, he remarked in the foreword to The Fall of the City, his first and most significant contribution to the aural arts, “what poet ever lived who was really satisfied with writing the thin little books to lie on the front parlor tables?”

As a Librarian of Congress, MacLeish enjoyed ready access to many an obscure document—and radio offered an opportunity of sharing this wealth of unheard words. Rather than dramatizing scenes from history books, MacLeish wanted to let ancient texts speak for themselves:

To place historical personages in historical situations and then imagine the words they must have spoken to each other is to imitate the historical dramas of the stage at the expense of radio’s unique function and unique opportunity. Because radio is limited mechanically to sound, and particularly to the sound of speech, radio is capable of a concentration upon the speech itself, the text itself, which can give words a life and a significance they rarely achieve outside the printed page—and which they achieve there only for the most gifted and fortunate readers.

In “The Many Dead,” one of the scripts for the American Story series, MacLeish drew on the writings of Pizarro’s secretary Francisco de Xeres to recount the death of emperor Atahuallpa. In order to convey this sobering story without turning it into sensational melodrama, the poet-historian chose to deliver the “pertinent excerpts” of Xeres’s official account in the somber and matter-of-fact voice of a clerk, a newscaster of his time:

The Governor [Pizarro] asked the Father Friar Vicente if he wished to go and speak to Atahuallpa with an interpreter. He replied that he did wish it, and he advanced with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other [. . .] and [. . .] thus addressed him: “I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like matter I come to teach you. What I teach is that which God says to us in this Book [. . .].”

Atahuallpa asked for the book that he might look at it, and the priest gave it to him closed. Atahuallpa did not know how to open it, and the Priest was extending his arm to do so, when Atahuallpa, in great anger, gave him a blow on the arm, not wishing that it should be opened [. . .]. Then he opened it himself, and, without any astonishment at the letters and paper, as had been shown by other Indians, he threw it away form him five or six paces . . . .

Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.
Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.

According to Xeres’s account, Pizarro and his men “fearlessly seized” Atahuallpa and the infantry of the Spaniards “made so good an assault” on the fleeing natives that “in a short time most of them were put to the sword.” Pizarro was said to have protected the emperor from the Spaniards—to give him the benefit of a proper execution—and was slightly wounded as a result. “It was a very wonderful thing,” the clerk concludes, “to see so great a lord taken prisoner in so short a time [. . .].”

The men with the books have generally proved victorious over the vocal but readily muted thinkers who spread their words without the benefit of the printing press. Atahuallpa, bereft of his voice after rejecting the book, chose death by strangulation. Even MacLeish, as Librarian of Congress, largely failed in his attempt to return written records to the air and revive the breath that gave them life. Who, after all, still listens to his American Story today?

Now, I hear that the madrileños are a noisy, boisterous people; perhaps the powerful, silencing, and not-so-good book instilled them with confidence. . . .

Eran Trece for Dinner; or, A Spanish Lesson with Charlie Chan

Well, “gracias, muchisimas!” Thanks to some last-minute planning on my behalf, I’ll be off on a trip to sweltering Madrid, starting next Wednesday. It will be my first visit to continental Europe since I left my native Germany for New York City in 1990; and it has been even longer since last I’ve traveled to a country whose primary language I neither speak nor comprehend. Although I lived just below Spanish Harlem for many years and the majority of my students at City University colleges were Hispanic, I never picked up more than the odd word or phrase. Indolence and impatience aside, my main excuse is that I was too busy appropriating English and promoting it as a common language, the thorough knowledge of which would benefit all who choose to live in the United States.

These days, resisting such study—and missing out intellectually and economically as a result—is being celebrated as multiculturalism, I suppose. Aware that I would miss out on Spanish culture unless I made a valiant if belated effort to train my tongue linguistically as well as culinarily, I popped in a DVD last night and watched Eran Trece. What better introduction to a foreign language than a lesson delivered by a Spanish re-interpreter of an American conception of the aphorism-peppered speech of a Chinaman! Charlie Chan, that is.

Eran Trece (1931) is the Spanish version of Charlie Chan Carries On, a copy of which has not yet resurfaced. It was produced in the early days of the talkies, when recasting rather than dubbing was being explored as a means of broadening the market for English and American films after the end of the silent era threatened to fragment the movie industry and diminish the potential of major studios like 20th Century Fox to generate global box-office successes. It was a costly enterprise that dubbing soon made redundant.

For anyone who has been exposed to dubbed films and the consequent muffling of cultural differences, the advantages of recasting will be readily appreciated, even though it meant that international audiences did not get to see the well-trained stars of Hollywood or Elstree, unless these performers were multilingual. Claudette Colbert, for instance, acted in both The Big Pond and its French version Le Grand Mer (1930).

Restaging also demanded a few rewrites to make an originally American or British film more intelligible or palatable to the international audience. For instance, when remarking upon a photograph of Chan’s many-headed family, characters in the original are reminded of Birth of a Nation, whereas the Spanish commentators liken it to a soccer team; apparently, not all silent movies translate quite so easily either. Eran Trece certainly has some Spanish blood in it; and even though much of it is spilled, the scenario includes a cheerful party scene with a fiery musical interlude that does not appear to be matched by the American original.

I neglected to mention that the copy I screened did not have English subtitles; so, being only vaguely familiar with the novel I read ages ago in a German translation, I availed myself of the scenario for the missing American film version, which is being shared online by the most generous and kindly guardian of the Charlie Chan Family Home. It was one of the most curious cinematic experiences I had since attending a MoMA screening of the fragmentary British-German coproduction of The Queen Was in the Parlor (1927), a silent film (neither scored nor accompanied by piano) . . . with Danish titles.

So, did I learn any Spanish last night? Well, not really, apart from Charlie’s frequently reiterated “Gracias, muchisimas”; but I’m sure I’ll remember the folly of this odd encounter with the Oriental hombre when confronted with the task of deciphering the dinner menus next week.

“Reviewing the Situation”: Catching Up with Fagin in the Way West End

Moving from Manhattan to Mid-Wales was bound to lower my chances of taking in some live theater now and then (not that Broadway ticket prices had allowed me to keep the intervals between “now” and “then” quite as short as I’d like them to be). I expected there’d be the odd staging of Hamlet with an all-chicken cast or a revival of “Hey, That’s My Tractor” (to borrow some St. Olaf stories from The Golden Girls). Luckily, I’m not one to embrace the newfangled and my tastes in theatrical entertainments are, well, conservative. I say luckily because even if you’’re living west of England rather than the West End of its capital, chances are that there’s a touring company coming your way, eventually.

What came my way last night was a well-oiled production of Oliver!, with Peter Karrie in the role of Fagin. It was my second reunion with Oliver Twist this year, having watched playwright/composer Neil Brand at work on a new score for the 1922 silent screen version in his London studio last June. Apparently, the age of political correctness has not yet torn down or effaced all the melodramatic caricatures in the western portrait gallery of villains and scoundrels.

Never mind the play’s eponymous tyke, who wriggled through the miseries of his youth predictably well, in keeping with the plans laid out for him by “Mr. Popular Sentiment” (as Dickens was mockingly called by fellow novelist Anthony Trollope). Aside from Lionel Bart’s eminently hummable tunes, it was Karrie’s con brio portrayal of Fagin that kept this superannuated warhorse of a melodrama from coming across as lame and lumbering.

While often considered sure-fire, revivals are not quite so easy to pull off; too often they are self-conscious about the dateness of the material. Apart from the half-heartedness of uneasy reverence (as achieved by the Old Vic production of The Philadelphia Story I saw earlier this summer), there’s nothing worse than camp, the postmodernist disease of arrogant, willful misreading and flaunted emotional impoverishment. Oliver! was refreshingly, that is unabashedly, old-fashioned, brought to life by force of Karrie’s sense of bathos, at full throttle in the musical number “Reviewing the Situation.”

Well, it was not difficult for me to identify with the situation under review, that is, with Fagin’s assessment of his outsider status and his pondering of the pressure to adjust: “I’m finding it hard to be really as black as they paint,” he sighs, addressing the audience. Twice authored—by the creators of the play and the society they depict—Fagin conforms both to melodramatic conventions and societal expectations (he’s a “bad ‘un” who cannot change) while all along defying such standards (aware of his “situation,” he grapples with it and implicates the class system that stamped him an outcast):

Left without anyone in the world,
And I’m starting from now,
So how to win friends and to influence people?
So how?
I’m reviewing the situation:
I must quickly look up ev’ryone I know [. . .].

So where shall I go—somebody?
Who do I know? Nobody!
All my dearest companions
Have always been villains and thieves.
So at my time of life I should start
Turning over new leaves?

There simply aren’t enough leaves in the book for old Fagin. So, having reviewed the situation, he is very nearly resigned to a condition that a less reflective person would call fated:

I’m a bad ‘un and a bad ‘un I shall stay!
You’ll be seeing no transformation,
But it’s wrong to be a rogue in ev’ry way. 

I don’t want nobody hurt for me,
Or made to do the dirt for me.
This rotten life is not for me.
It’s getting far too hot for me.
Don’t want no one to rob for me.
But who will find a job for me?
There is no in between for me,
But who will change the scene for me?
I think I’d better think it out again!

Between a rock and a hard place, between Scylla and Charybdis, Fagin is forever reviewing a situation he is at a loss to improve; for him, there’s no silver lining (like the one above, which I spotted in the sky this morning). Taking advantage of the anonymity and visibility technology can offer the latter-day rogue with a touch of Hamlet and Werther, he would probably be blogging about it today.