Much has been said about the titular edifice of Universal Studio’s 1932 melodrama The Old Dark House, the third in the series of films I am screening as part of my Gothic Imagination module at Aberystwyth University. Directed by the queer English Great War veteran James Whale, and adapted from J. B. Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted, The Old Dark House is often argued to be a commentary on Imperial Britain during the so-called interwar years (that is, the period between the two World Wars, Britain having been involved in plenty of other international conflicts besides): an ancient but crumbling family home – run by aging and morally corrupt imbeciles and cut off from the world by water. It has been called, more than once, a “metaphor for … England.”
And yet, the story is not set England but in Wales, and the novel and film alike exploit and perpetuate the stereotypes of what, presumably, constitutes Wales and sets it apart from neighboring England: the wild, the uncivilised, the superstitious and unenlightened. Wales, according to Priestley and Whale, is gothic territory. It is the stuff of romance – or the English definition of romance – meaning that when the English want to go primitive, they think Wales.
Here is what the dreamer Penderel, himself a war veteran, says about Wales as he is being driven around in his friend’s motorcar one dark and dismal night:
I don’t want to go to Shrewsbury. I don’t particularly want to go anywhere. Something might happen here, and nothing ever happens in Shrewsbury, and nothing much on the other side of Shrewsbury. But here there’s always a chance.
The Hollywood ending aside, the film is remarkably faithful to the novel, retaining much of Priestley’s dialogue. While I am not sure just how many US American viewers back then would have understood the reference to the border that Shrewsbury represents, both Priestley and Whale would have known that, when the name “Shrewsbury” is dropped, the meaning “borderline” is implied. Arriving at Shrewsbury – and this is the party’s intention – means traversing the Welsh Bridge over the Severn and arriving back in England.
The party in question – Penderel and his friends, the married and bickering couple Margaret and Philip – has lost its way in what Priestley lets Philip describe as “wildest Wales.” The colonial attitudes toward Wales as both enchanted and benighted – as a place where there is ‘always a chance’ – the chance of an improvement in infrastructure excepting – are at the heart of this modally gothic narrative.
When the drunkard Welsh butler Morgan opens the door upon their unannounced arrival, he “produce[s] from somewhere at the back of his throat, a queer gurgling sound” that Penderel cannot translate. Priestley tells us that “Penderel knew no Welsh.” And yet, he says with confidence, in the book and film version alike, that “Even Welsh out not to sound like that; it was as if a lump of earth had tried to make a remark.”
Wales, to be sure, was just that to England, or many in England, a mute lump of Earth to be exploited for its resources. It is not Wales that is gothic – or Gothic – but the perspective of the English that, fascinating as they may be with the wildness of Wales – impose their views on the nation they invade like “travellers in a foreign country,” as Priestley has Penderel see it.
Morgan, as we soon learn, cannot communicate in any spoken language. He is a personification of Wales infantilised, gesturing like “some prehistoric monster.” Wales, the source of mined ore – of coal and slate and lead, silver and gold – as well as Water, was often seen as little more than potential to be unearthed and funnelled for the benefit of England. The tradition was deemed to be expendable.
In The Old Dark House, as in Benighted, the nightmare vision makes way for daylight. What we experienced was a Phantasmagoria staged by the visiting English. The travelers depart, whether enlightened by what they experienced or just glad to have survived it. The perspective of the hosts is not considered.
Hollywood would return to a fairy-tale Wales in The Wolf Man a decade later, in which Welsh landscape and culture, rendered unrecognisable, become the other when England was seen as the real, the upholder of values, in its fight against fascism. To this day, visitors prefer to be enchanted by Wales, an old dark house whose perceived darkness is to a large extent a product of an English or Anglo-American imagination.
Nothing is innately trifling. As I put it once, when I had the nerve to make a public display – in a museum gallery, no less – of the mass-produced ephemera I collect, ‘Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter.’ Now, some products of culture are more resistant than others to our realization of them as worth more than a fleeting glance, if that. Exerting the effort to make them matter may feel downright perverse when there are claimed to be so many more deserving candidates for appreciation around.
When looking out for something to look into, I invariably draw on my own sense of otherness, of queerness. It is not altogether by choice that I am drawn to the presumed irrelevant. My perceived marginality is both the effect and the cause of my attraction to the margins. What matters – and according to whom – is always worth questioning. That is why I created Gothic Imagination, an alternative art history course I teach at Aberystwyth University.
To augment the weekly lectures and seminars, I created a series of film screenings for my students further to explore the territories of the visual ‘gothic’ beyond literary genre Gothic and the Gothic as an architectural style. The second film in the chronologically arranged series, The Cat and the Canary (1927), is, for all its technical and cinematographic achievements, a rather undemanding old chestnut. In part, such a view of it is owing to our belatedness of catching up with it, now that much of it strikes us as a grab bag of narrative clichés.
Well, those clichés were up for grabs even back in 1927, as the film draws on its audience’s familiarity with murder mysteries and stage melodramas. Like Seven Keys to Baldpate before it, The Cat and the Canary is parodic and self-reflexive. It play with conventions and our awareness, even our weariness, of them. The Cat got our tongue firmly in cheek; and as much as we may feel sticking it out at the derivative claptrap to which we are subjected, we are encouraged to appreciate that the film anticipates our response, that it is one step ahead, dangling our tongue cheekily in front of us like a carrot intended to keep us playing along.
Is it only a single step ahead? Ahead of what? Is it ahead, retro or perhaps even reactionary? The Cat and the Canary is postmodern before there was a word for it. Like any adaptation of a text I have not caught up with, it also makes me wonder just how what we get to see has evolved and how the film, in addition to interpreting its source material cinematically, questions, edits and revises that material as well.
One revision draws attention to itself in the credits – and it made me aware of the consequences the seemingly inconsequential can have. I am referring to the character Mammy Pleasant, a housekeeper played in the film by the scene-stealing Martha Mattox. Given that The Cat and the Canary was released in the same year that The Jazz Singer stridently hammered a sonic nail in the coffin of silent film – at times simply by dragging said nail screechingly across the surface of an eloquent body of work shaped over a quarter of a century – the reference to the ‘Mammy’ legend stood out like a discordant note.
What is ‘Mammy’ about Mammy Pleasant, particularly when the role is performed by a white female actor? The 1922 stage melodrama by John Willard, who also acted in the play on which the film is based, describes the character as an ‘old negress.’ Not that Blanche Friderici, who originated the part on the stage, was black. She performed it in blackface.
As The Jazz Singer and other early sound films such as the ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ vehicle Check and Double Check (1930), blackface and minstrel shows were very much part of Western popular culture at the time, and they were not effectively challenged – that is, were not permitted effectively to challenge – until decades later.
And yet, the film does not partake of that tradition, retaining the character’s name only. In the play, Mammy Pleasant is a servant who has gained enough independence to choose whether or not to serve the future heir to the fortune of her deceased employer, as is clear from this exchange with the family lawyer, Roger Crosby, prior to the reading of the will:
Crosby. Six! All the surviving relatives. By the way—Mammy—your job as guardian of this house is up to-night. What are you going to do?
Mammy. It all depends. If I like the new heirs—I stay here. If I don’t—I goes back to the West Indies.
There is no such exchange in the film, and the ethnicity of Mammy Pleasant is not made central to the characterisation, which in the play is rooted in stereotypes surrounding superstitions to be rooted out in the act of ratiocination. The Cat and the Canary is, after all, not a Gothic romance but a whodunit in which weird goings-on are shown to have a logical, albeit preposterous, explanation.
The name Mammy Pleasant, in Willard’s play at least, carries with it a reference to an actual person – the businesswoman and abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, who, by passing as white, managed to become the first African American millionaire.
In the stage play, produced nearly two decades after Pleasant’s death in 1904, the reference is facetious and derogatory. Mary Ellen Pleasant, who lost the fortune she had made and shared as an activist, and whose character was destroyed when her passing as a white cook and landlady was exposed, is misremembered in the film as a not altogether trustworthy and slightly threatening outsider operating on the inside of a dead white millionaire’s mansion.
Why did the reference remain? How many viewers back in 1927 would have recognised it as a reference to Mary Ellen Pleasant? And how many would have found comic relief in what might have been some sort of white revenge fantasy that renders Pleasant odious while keeping her in her supposed place?
It is a gothic reading, as opposed to a reading of the gothic, that refuses to privilege the center and, imagining alternatives, lets the canary chase the cat for a change. An unlikely scenario, to be sure; but to expose what is cultural it is useful to conjure what is unnatural.
I am not an academic. I am a human being. That’s not just me misquoting The Elephant Man. It is a cri de cœur expressive of what is at the core of my identity as a creative person who happens to have transmogrified into an art history lecturer. To interrogate what that even means, I teach “Gothic Imagination” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.
As part of that class, I present an extracurricular series of film screenings exploring the boundaries of the ‘gothic’ beyond the furnishings of the genre ‘Gothic.’ That ‘gothic’ is a term so broadly applied and ill-defined as to render it practically useless is a by now thoroughly predictable way of opening a debate about its practical uses. Then again, the gothic has little to do to with practicalities.
I have no intention to make the term, “salonfähig,” that is, reverting here to my native German, to make it acceptable or viable in an academic setting. Rather, I use the word, which I am applying to visual culture instead of literature, to contest progress or avant-garde narratives traditionally espoused by academies in order to suggest alternative histories and alternatives to the teaching of art history. Attention to the popular, presumably lesser arts is essential to this strategy.
The first series of screenings, coinciding with my previous iteration of “Gothic Imagination,” was titled “Treacherous Territories.” The phrase was meant to capture that challenge of defining and the dangers of inserting a mutable term such as ‘gothic’ into the lecture theaters and seminar rooms that cannot quite accommodate, let alone confine it.
The current series, “Uneasy Threshold,” continues that playful investigation. What, for instance, carries a mystery or a romance over the threshold of ‘gothic’? What is that threshold? And what is the ‘gothic’ interior – the environment in which ‘gothic’ may be contained both as a subject for discussion and as an experience to be had by the viewer of, say, a crime drama, a thriller, a film noir or a horror movie?
As a literary genre, the Gothic began in and with a house – in Strawberry Hill and with the Castle of Otranto, both conceived by Horace Walpole long before Frankenstein, Jekyll/Hyde and Dracula came onto the scene. Those names are on the letter box of the Gothic mansion of our imagination, and I do not mean to evict their bearers; but might there be room as well – be it a closet, a cellar or a boudoir – for a few hundred other, less usual suspects, such as the title character of The Lodger (1927)?
The Lodger insists on moving in on the party assembled at the Gothic castle, just as the Lodger – who may or may not be a serial killer called The Avenger – emerges out of the fog. edges himself into the home of the Buntings, and comes to preoccupy their thoughts and nightmares. Invited, perhaps, but deemed suspect or queer all the same.
When the Lodger first made his appearance, in 1911, in a short story by Marie Belloc Lowndes, the figure was already lodged in the collective consciousness of urban dwellers who, like the author, were old enough to recall the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 or else were raised with the legend of Jack the Ripper, an alternative to a nursery rhyme all the more terrifying for having neither rhyme nor reason.
The Lodger transforms the story, which Belloc Lowndes turned into a novel, by pouring more sex into the mix. That the layered cake did not quite rise to Hitchcock’s satisfaction was, legend has it, due to the casting of Ivor Novello in the title role: a queer Welsh matinee idol who, Hitchcock argued, was not allowed to get away with murder but was to be pronounced blameless by virtue of his status as a star.
Whether or not that is the true reason for the direction the movie adaptation takes, it does not make the story any less intriguing – or gothic.
The Lodger is the story of a home that becomes “unhomely” – German for “uncanny.” The lodger is no architect or bricklayer; rather, he transforms the dynamics of the group of people dwelling in the house he enters. Blameless he may be, but he is an Avenger all the same, as Sanford Schwartz points out in “To-Night ‘Golden Curls’: Murder and Mimesis in Hitchcock’s The Lodger” – not the killer, but the victim of the killer avenging her death, a victim-turned-vigilante who, misunderstood, dreaded and feared, becomes the subject of her other lover’s revenge.
It is the other, ostensibly sane and safe lover, a police officer, who trespasses – who abuses his power – to trap the innocent man who threatens his supremacy as a prospective husband. The handcuffs he suits to his own pursuits prove harmful to his lover’s trust and nearly cause the death of his rival even after that rival is proven innocent of crime.
The Lodger is gothic as James’s Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is Gothic. It is a story of injustice and sanctioned tyranny. Like Frankenstein’s creature, the Lodger is hunted and tormented. Law, reason and morals are being questioned; and the pillars of civilisation are proven to be unsafe as houses.
The next time I am (re)viewing The Lodger, the film will be accompanied by Neil Brand at Gregynog Hall, 6 Nov. 2021, when I shall be in conversation with the playwright-composer about silent film music and the language of pre-talkie cinema.
Mystery-and-detective fiction, in Britain at least, has been experiencing a decided revival since the mid 2010s, in part owing to – and evidenced by – the re-release of so-called golden-age whodunits by the British Library. What the public’s readiness to soak up all that blood of yesteryear might tell us about the mores of the present day I shall leave to sociologists to unravel. I, for one, welcomed that reopening of landmark trials and half-forgotten cases, not only as a chance at armchair detection – especially during pandemic times standing eerily still – but as an opportunity to reflect on my murderous past by returning to those crime scenes in middle age, knowing full well and being quite relieved that, by catching up, I could never go home again to what did not feel like home to begin with.
That said, picking up the clues and piecing together the puzzle we are to ourselves, I feel a queer consistency – or consistent queerness – at the racing, bleeding or prematurely failing heart of it all.
My transition from children’s literature to ostensibly grown-up fiction did not happen via the young adult section of a lending library. Fictions about growing up rarely spoke to me, as, back then, they were largely silent about desires that, while no longer criminalized, were deemed unfit for titles on general display.
Murder mysteries, in their indiscriminate pronouncements of death sentences, were reassuring in that respect. Anyone could be a suspect or victim, and eventually the act of victimization would be disclosed. Murder, at least, will out. The most formulaic mysteries were the most agreeable to me. I did not care for social realism that did not match my felt reality. Agatha Christie whodunits, in particular, I appreciated for the perfunctory relentlessness of their nursery rhyme catechism in counting down and categorical settling of accounts.
Returning now to detective fiction via some of Christie’s notable but lesser-known contemporary competitors, I look for and find a renewed relevance. Ngaio Marsh’s Clutch of Constables (1968), a copy of which I spotted in a local charity shop, makes considerable efforts to encourage such a reassessment.
To begin with, those Constables referred to in the title are not officers of the law: they are patches of the outdoors featured in landscape paintings by the artist of the same name. I would not have been alive to Marsh’s wordplay that all those years ago, when I was reading A Clutch of Constables in a German translation, removed from the culture in which they were produced and of which they speak. To be sure, the German title of Marsh’s mystery – Mord auf dem Fluss – is so generic as to leave neither a hint of its origins nor a trace in my memory; I had to consult an old diary to discover that I had indeed read it some thirty-five years earlier.
Significantly, the Constables in question are not the real thing – and, as I know now, being a reader and writer of art’s histories, even the real thing was not a true picture of parts of Britain but a commentary on changing times. The same can be said about A Clutch of Constables.
The action of Marsh’s novel takes place aboard the “pleasure-craft Zodiac” as it leisurely cruises on a meandering river. “For Five Days you Step out of Time,” the operators promise in their advertising – but there is no sidestepping the sign of the times. And however picturesque the scenery, the river has not escaped pollution, with “detergent foam” muddying the waters and our image of an England steeped in history and yet somehow untouched by it. Want your murders “cozy”? No soap, says Marsh.
By the time Clutch of Constables was published, Marsh had been in the guessing game for decades, and the whodunit was well past its prime. Her aim, clearly, was to make her later work resonate with a new generation of mystery readers while remaining within the established boundaries of the genre.
What caught my attention was the self-consciousness with which Marsh’s mystery, for all its adroit plotting, reflected on its grappling with social relevance. Marsh’s portrayal of two American, er, tourists, at once conservative and conniving, both reflects and reinforces changing attitudes towards the United States during the Vietnam War. One of the characters, the surgeon Doctor Natouche – black and British – is the subject of harassment, stereotyping and suspicion. And while readers are not encouraged altogether to rule out his guilt, those who judge him based on the color of his skin – the visiting Americans among them – are proven wrong both morally and intellectually.
Marsh’s narrative also enables the spouse of her series detective, Inspector Alleyn, to assume center stage. Agatha “Troy” Alleyn is an exhibiting artist and an astute observer reporting from the scene of the crime. Even though, eventually, she is unceremoniously dismissed so her husband can take over and solve the crime, that position is justified by Marsh, and a reference to a popular franchise character serves as a reminder that latest developments in crime fiction are far from advanced: “In the Force our wives are not called upon to serve in female James-Bondage and I imagine most of you would agree that any notion of their involvement in our work would be outlandish, ludicrous and extremely unpalatable.”
In A Clutch of Constables, Marsh was making a plea for whodunits as a force for good, capable of making a difference by exposing prejudices rooted in the widely held but erroneous notion of a homogenous British society. Take this passage, for instance, in which Inspector Alleyn – who is also an educator in and of the police force – reflects on the task of detection:
The moral is: that it takes all sorts to make a thoroughly bad lot and it sometimes takes a conscientious police officer quite a long time to realise this simple fact of unsavoury life. You can’t type criminals.
Detective fiction need not be removed from the lives and causes that matter, Marsh seems to say, anticipating the debates of the present day. Taking the policing genre to task, A Clutch of Constables releases it from the grasp of those clinging to the false memory of a none-too-golden past. “We are not a starry-eyed lot,” Alleyn insists:
But at the risk of getting right off the track – a most undesirable proceeding – I would like to say this. You won’t be any the worse at your job if you can keep your humanity. If you lose it altogether you’ll be, in my opinion, better out of the Force because with it you’ll have lost your sense of values and that’s a dire thing to befall any policeman.
That “dire thing” may also “befall” the writer of cleverly crafted whodunits. To avoid such failings, Marsh not only communicates her values but, in those asides, advises her peers to not to let go of their fellow feeling at the profitable drop of another clutch of lifeless bodies.
“Home at last,” I could almost hear myself sigh as, out of the narrow slit in our front door, I yanked the packet arriving today. Bearing my name, as few pieces of mail of any consequence or sustenance do nowadays, it contained the volume Audionarratology: Lessons from Radio Drama, to which I had been invited a few years ago to contribute a chapter. The book was published in July 2021 by Ohio State University, a press renowned for its contribution to the evolving discourse on narratology.
The titular neologism suggests that an engagement with aural storytelling is proposed as one way of broadening a field that has enriched the interpretation not only of literature but also of visual culture. Whether such aural storytelling should be subsumed under the rubric ‘radio drama’ is something I debated in my study Immaterial Culture, for which I settled on the term ‘radio play,’ as, I argued, the fictions written for radio production and transmission are hybrids whose potentialities remained underexplored and whose contribution to the arts underappreciated in part due to the alignment of such plays with works for stage and screen. Nor am I sure that, by adding the prefix, “audionarratology” will be regarded as a subgroup of narratology – which would defeat the purpose of broadening said field.
To the question what “Lessons” may be learned from plays for radio, or from our playing with them, the quotation that serves as title of my essay provides a serviceable response: “There ain’t no sense to nothin.” The line is uttered by one of the characters in I Love a Mystery, the thriller serial I discuss – and it is expressive of the bewilderment I felt when first I entered the world created in the 1930s and 1940s by the US American playwright-producer Carlton E. Morse. My cumbersome subtitle is meant to suggest how I responded to the task of making sense not only of the play but also of the field in which I was asked to position it: “Serial Storytelling, Radio-Consciousness and the Gothic of Audition.”
By labelling ‘gothic’ not simply the play but my experience of it, I aim to bring to academic discourse my feeling of unease, a sense of misgivings about explaining away what drew me in to begin with, the lack of vocabulary with which adequately to describe my experience of listening, the anxiety of having to theorise within the uncertain boundaries of a discourse that I sought to broaden instead of delimiting.
Throughout my experience with radio plays of the so-called golden age, I felt that, playing recording or streaming play, I had to audition belatedly for a position of listener but that I could never hear the plays as they were intended to be taken in – serially, via radio – during those days before the supremacy of television, the medium that shaped my childhood.
In the essay, I try to communicate what it feels like not knowing – not knowing the solution to a mystery, not quite knowing my place vis-à-vis the culture in which the play was produced or the research culture in which thriller programs such as I Love a Mystery are subjected to some theory and much neglect. Instead of analysing a play, I ended up examining myself as a queer, English-as-second-language listener estranged from radio and alien to the everyday of my grandparent’s generation – never mind that my German grandfather fought on the Axis side while the US home front stayed tuned to news from the frontlines as much as it tuned in to thrillers and comedies that were hardly considered worthy of being paraded as the so-called forefront of modernism. So, a measure of guilt enters into the mix of emotions with which I struggle to approach or sell such cultural products academically.
The resulting chapter is proposed as a muddle, not as a model – although its self-consciousness may be an encouragement to some who are struggling to straddle the line between their searching, uncertain selves and the construct of a scholarly identity. Its failings and idiosyncrasies are no strategic efforts to fit in by playing the misfit or refitting the scene – they are proposed as candid reflection of my mystification.
They also bespeak the fact that the essay, unfinished or not fully realised though it may seem, was a quarter century in the making. It started out by twisting the dial of my stereo receiver and happening on Max Schmid’s ear-opening program The Golden Age of Radio on WBAI, New York, agonising whether to turn my newly discovered hobby into the subject of academic study, enrolling in Richter course “The Rise of the Gothic” at CUNY, and by responding to the essay brief by exploring gothic radio plays and radio adaptations of Gothic literature.
Once I had decided to abandon my Victorian studies in favor of old-time radio, the essay was revised to become a chapter of my PhD study Etherized Victorians. It was revisited but removed from Immaterial Culture as an outlier – the only longer reading of a play not based on a published script – during the process of negotiating the space allotted by the publisher. It had a lingering if non-too-visible presence on my online journal broadcastellan as an experiment in interactive blogging, and it now appears in a volume devoted to a subject of which I had no concept when I started out all those years ago.
The draft, too, has gone through a long process of negotiation — of editing, cutting and rewriting – at some point of which the frankness of declaring myself to be among the “outsiders” of the discourse did not make the editors’ cut.
So, home the essay has come; but the home has changed, as has its dweller, a student of literature who transmogrified into an art historian with a sideline of aurality, and who now has to contend with tinnitus and hearing loss when listening out for clues to non-visual mysteries and, ever self-conscious, waits for his cue to account for the latest of his botches, or, worse still, to be met with silence. Estrangement, uncertainty, and the misery of having to account for the state of being mesmerised by mysteries unsolved – such is the gothic of audition.
The themed window of our local Oxfam bookshop here in Aberystwyth was something to behold on that bright July afternoon. A row of handsome, second-hand but well-preserved copies of once popular fiction beckoned, reminding me of the tag I had chosen for this blog devoted to unpopular culture upon its inception back in 2005: “Keeping up with the out-of-date.”
A novelist friend and avid reader, who had come from London for a visit, treated me to a volume of my choice. Three of them, in fact, as the £5-for-three deal made it unnecessary to be quite so discriminating. I passed up on erstwhile bestsellers by A. J. Cronin and Pearl S. Buck, both of whom had vanished from the display a day later, when I returned for another three titles (all six are pictured above). My first choice, however, had been Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965).
I remember picking up Wouk’s tome Youngblood Hawke (1962), in a German translation, from my parent’s sparse bookshelves. My grandfather, likewise, was a Wouk reader, even though his chief interest lay in the writer’s Second World War subjects, to which Opa Heinrich, a former POW, could relate. In my late teens, desultory though my readings were, I enjoyed Wouk’s earlier City Boy (1948) and Marjorie Morningstar (1955).
My next encounter with Wouk’s writings dates from my years of graduate studies in New York. I had decided to ditch Thomas Carlyle as a subject and instead write a PhD study on US radio plays. Wouk, as I discussed here previously, had started as a radio writer or gagman. He satirized the industry in Aurora Dawn (1947) and reflected on his experience it in his autobiographical novel Inside, Outside (1985). From the latter I snatched the phrases “Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?” – a reference to laxative commercials on the air – for the title of one of the chapters of Immaterial Culture to capture the dismissal of commercial radio as a legitimate literary forum by those who had written for broadcasting during the 1930s and 1940s but who gained prominence later as published writers and dramatists.
Long story short, I have a kind of casual relationship with Wouk as a writer, a relationship that at one point turned serious (or academic) due to my interest in radio. So, when I spotted that copy of Don’t Stop the Carnival, an old book new to me, I felt inclined to get reacquainted. It turned out to be a bad date.
Don’t Stop the Carnival is a story of middle age. The action, of which there is plenty, is mainly set on an imaginary island in the Caribbean, anno 1959. The novel relates the misadventures of a New Yorker – Norman Paperman – who falls in love with what strikes him as a tropical paradise and decides to take over a hotel, having had no prior experience either with the business or with life on a tropical island. Complications abound, some less comical than others.
Paperman is a Mr. Blandings of sorts, a familiar figure in American fiction. He’d rather lay an egg elsewhere than suffer his ‘disenchantment with Manhattan’ a day longer:
the climbing prices, the increasing crowds and dirt, the gloomy weather, the slow bad transportation, the growing hoodlumism, the political corruption, the mushrooming of office buildings that were rectilinear atrocities of glass, the hideous jams in the few good restaurants, the collapse of decent service even in the luxury hotels, the extortionist prices of tickets to hit shows and the staleness of those hits, and the unutterably narrow weary repetitiousness of the New York life in general, and above all the life of a minor parasite like a press agent.
Perhaps, as his name suggests, Norman is not to be looked at as man but as a page – scribbled on, rather than blank, over the course of nearly fifty years. He may feel like turning over a new leaf – but his life is already scripted in ink that is indelible. Don’t Stop the Carnival sets us up for its conservative moral: stick with what you know, stop kvetching, and don’t even think that the grass could be greener than in Central Park in May.
While it responds to the modernity of its day – to the threat of nuclear war and the growing doubt in the progress narrative of the 1950s – the novel nonetheless shelters in the makeshift of retrospection: it looks back at the end of the Eisenhower years from the vantage point of the violent end of the Kennedy presidency to reflect on the so-called modern liberalism of the early to mid-1960s.
Was this choice of dating the action meant to suggest the datedness of the views expressed by the characters? What were the attitudes of the author toward race relations, civil rights and liberalism? In other words, what comments on the turmoil of the 1960s did Wouk make – or avoid making – by transporting back the readers of his day and dropping them off on an island that, for all its remoteness is nonetheless US territory, and that is about to be developed and exploited for its exoticism and natural resources?
The titular carnival is both figurative and metaphoric – an extended topsy-turvydom (or chaos) in which black mix and mate with white, queer live along straight folks, and Jews like Wouk’s protagonist Norman Paperman mingle with Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, pagans and atheists. He encounters bad infrastructure, worse bureaucracy, and political corruption. This island ain’t that different from Manhattan – which argues getting away from his former life to be futile and pointless.
The Carnival is not only shown to be a dead end but a deadly one. In the final pages of the novel, two characters are killed in quick succession – one central to the narrative, the other – the decidedly other – being marginal. The central one is Norman’s island fling, Iris Tramm, whom he knew as a celebrated actress two decades earlier and is surprised or reencounter, washed up but still alluring, as one of the guests in the hotel he decides to buy.
The island carnival is exposed as a tropical fever that means either death or cure – a cure for an uncommon warmth of non-traditional bonds and realized desires. Paperman recovers, and his understanding wife takes him “home.” His lover, meanwhile, must first lose the companionship of her dog, and then, trashing Paperman’s car while trying to reunite with her wounded pet at a veterinarian’s, her life. Was this the only out Wouk could conceive for a white woman who was the mistress of a black official who dared not to marry her?
It is the treatment of the marginal character of Hassim and his swift, unceremonious and unlamented disposal that lays bare Wouk’s fear of change: the antique dealer Hassim, introduced as a “rotund bald man” with a “bottom swaying like a woman’s,” who openly flirts with young men. In fact, the island is awash with middle-class homosexuals of all ages. Even Paperman’s hotel is pre-owned by a gay couple. And although he must have come across some of them in his former job as a Broadway press agent, Paperman is uneasy in their presence when he and Iris, his illicit love, visit an establishment frequented by gays:
Norman found the proprietor amusing, and he was enjoying the songs of his youth. But the Casa Encantada made him uneasy. Men were flirting with each other all around him; some were cuddling like teen-agers in a movie balcony. The boy in the pink shirt, biting his nails and constantly looking around in a scared way, sat at a small table with one of the rich pederasts from Signal Mountain, a pipe-smoking gray-haired man in tailored olive shirt and shorts, with young tan features carved by plastic surgery, and false teeth. Norman was glad when the proprietor finished a run of Noel Coward songs and left the piano, so that he and Iris could politely get out of the place.
Hassim is shot dead by a policeman, despite posing no risk and committing no crimes. The killing, which occurs in Paperman’s hotel and bar, the Gull Reef, is described in few words and elicits less of a response than the stabbing of a dog a few pages before this incident near the close of the novel.
“As a matter of fact, […] I feel sorry for the poor bugger,” is the response to the death of Hassim by one character, “munching on his thick-piled hamburger” not long after the killing.
“I’ve known thousands of those guys, and there’s no harm in ninety-nine out of a hundred of them. It’s just a sickness and it’s their own business. Though gosh knows, when I was a kid working backstage, I sure got some surprises. Yes ma’am, it was dam near worth my life to bend over and tie my shoelace, I tell you.” He laughed salaciously. His once green face was burning to an odd bronze color like an American Indian’s, and he looked very relaxed and happy. “Actually, Henny [who is Paperman’s wife], I almost hate to say this, but I think this thing’s going to prove a break for the Club. I bet the nances stop coming to Gull Reef after this.”
Such views are unchallenged by the narrator and the main character, who decides to sell his business – to the man expressing those views, no less – and return to New York. “People thought that this [his death] was a bit hard on Hassim,” the narrator sums, “but that the cop after all had only been doing his duty, and that one queer the less in the world was no grievous loss.” Case closed. Business open as usual.
Clearly, queers like me were not considered by Wouk to be among his readers. Targets, yes, but not target audiences. Even the academic treatment of homosexuality – the suggestion that famous writers of the past, too, might have been homosexuals – is ridiculed in the novel, with one PhD student, the lover of Paperman’s teenage daughter, nearly drowning in the sea.
Wouk, who died shortly before his 104th birthday in May 2019, lived beyond the middle age of Don’t Stop the Carnival for more than half a century. I doubt that I shall make him a companion again on whatever is left of my journey.
The most recent item to enter my collection of ephemera is a somewhat tattered, unpublished radio script (pictured above). It is held together by rusty staples that attest to the authenticity to which, as a cultural product, it cannot justly lay claim. I still do not know the first thing about it. When was it written? To whom was it sold? Was it ever produced?
Initial research online revealed at least that Hugh Lester, the writer claiming responsibility – or demanding credit – for the script, was by the late 1930s a known entity in the business of radio writing, with one of his adaptations (a fifteen-minute dramatisation of Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Necklace”) appearing in a volume titled Short Plays for Stage and Radio (1939). Rather than wait to ascertain its parentage, I decided to adopt Lester’s brainchild after spotting it lingering in the virtual orphanage known as eBay, where the unwanted are put on display for those of us who might be enticed to give them a new home.
Getting it home – my present residence – proved a challenge. After being dispatched from The Bronx, the script spent a few months in foster care – or a gap behind a sofa in my erstwhile abode in Manhattan – before my ex could finally be coaxed into shipping it to Wales. I occasionally have eBay purchases from the US mailed to my former New York address to avoid added international postage; but the current pandemic is making it impractical to collect those items in person, given that I am obliged to forgo my visits to the old neighborhood this year. I was itching to get my hands on those stapled sheets of paper, especially since I am once again teaching my undergraduate class (or module, in British parlance) in Adaptation, in which the particular story reworked by Lester features as a case study.
As its title declares, the item in question is a “Radio Serial in Three Half Hour Episodes” of Charlotte Brontë’s 1848 novel Jane Eyre. It is easy for us to call Jane Eyre that now – a novel. When it was first published, of course, it came before the public as an autobiography, the identity of its creator disguised (‘Edited by Currer Bell,’ the original title page read), leading to wild speculations as to its parentage. An adaptation, on the other hand, proudly discloses its origins, and it builds a case for its right to exist by drawing attention to its illustrious ancestry, as Lester’s undated serialisation does:
Announcer: We take pride in presenting for your entertainment at the first chapter of a distinguished dramatisation of Charlotte Brontë’s world famous novel, Jane Eyre.
An interesting choice of phrasing, that: while the source is pronounced to be ‘world-famous,’ meaning popular, this further popularisation by radio is argued to be ‘distinguished,’ meaning, presumably, first-rate – unless ‘distinguished’ is meant to suggest that the child (the adaptation) can readily be told apart from the parent (source). Is not Jane Eyre ‘distinguished,’ whereas the aim of radio serials, plays for a mass medium, is to be popular, if only temporarily? Clearly, Lester aimed in that announcement to elevate to an art the run-of-the-mill business of adaptation that was his line; and run-of-the-mill it certainly was, most or the time.
One expert on radio scripts, commenting in 1939, went so far as to protest that radio had ‘developed almost no writers,’ that it had ‘appropriated almost all of them, at least all of those who could tell a good story.’ The same commentator, Max Wylie – himself a former radio director of scripts and continuity at CBS – also called ‘radio writing’ the ‘orphan child of accepted literature.’ To him, most radio writing was no ‘radio’ writing at all, at least not ‘in the artistic and creative sense,’ but ‘an effort in translation’ – ‘a work of appropriation whose legitimacy depends upon the skill of its treatment but whose real existence depends upon the work of some able craftsman who quite likely never anticipated the electrical accident of the microphone.’
Instead of approaching adaptation in terms of fidelity – how close it is to its source – what should concern those of us who write about radio as a form is how far an adaptation (or translation, or dramatisation) needs to distance itself from its source so it can be adopted by the medium to which it is introduced. However rare they may be, radio broadcasts such as “The War of the Worlds” have demonstrated that an adaptation can well be ‘radio writing’ – as long as it is suited to the medium in such a way that it becomes dependent on it for its effective delivery. It needs to enter a new home where it can be felt to belong instead of being made to pay a visit, let alone be exploited for being of service.
Jane Eyre was adapted for US radio numerous times during the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s. The history of its publication echoing the story of its heroine and their fate in the twentieth century – Jane Eyre was apparently parentless. Brontë concealed her identity so that Jane could have a life in print, or at least a better chance of having a happy and healthy one. In the story, Jane must learn to be independent before the man who loves her can regain her trust – a man who, in turn, has to depend on her strength. Similarly, Jane Eyre had to be separated from her mother, Charlotte Brontë, because she could not trust the male critics to accept her true parentage.
On the air, that parent, Charlotte Brontë, needs to be acknowledged so that an adaptation of Jane Eyre does not become an impostor; at the same time, the birth mother must be disowned so that Jane can become a child of the medium of which the parent had no notion – but which is nonetheless anticipated in the telepathic connection that, in the end, leads an adult and independent Jane back to Mr. Rochester, the lover who betrayed her and must earn her trust anew.
Lester’s three-part adaptation retains that psychic episode in Brontë’s story:
Rochester: (In agony. Whispering through a long tube) Jane! Jane! I need you. Come to me – come to me!
In radio broadcasting, ‘[w]hispering through a long tube’ can be made to suggest telephony and telepathy – and indeed the medium has the magic of equating both; the prosaic soundstage instruction revealing the trick makes clear, however, that the romance of radio is in the production, that, unlike a novel, a radio play cannot be equated with a script meant for performance.
Being three times as long as most radio adaptations, Lester’s script can give Jane some air to find herself and a home for herself. And yet, like many other radio versions of the period, it depends so heavily on dramatisation as to deny Jane the chance of shaping her own story. One scholar, Sylvère Monod has identified thirty passages in which the narrator of Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre – directly addresses the audience. And yet, the most famous line of Brontë’s novel is missing from Lester’s script, just as it is absent in most adaptations: ‘Reader, I married him.’ How easily this could be translated into ‘listener’ – to resonate profoundly that most intimate of all mass media: the radio.
Lester, according to whose script plain Jane is ‘pretty,’ is not among the ‘distinguished’ plays of – or for – radio. Exploiting its source, by then a copyright orphan, it fosters an attitude that persists to this day, despite my persistent efforts to suggest that it can be otherwise: that radio writing is the ‘orphan child of accepted literature.’
In “‘Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?’: Exits and Recantations,” the final chapter of Immaterial Culture, I briefly discuss how creative talent working in the US broadcasting industry during the 1930s and 1940s tended to recall their experience upon closing the door to the world of radio in order to pursue careers they deemed more lofty and worthy. Few had anything positive to say about that world, and their reminiscences range from ridicule to vitriol.
Within a year or two after the end of the Second World War, attacks on the radio industry became widespread and popular; most notable among them was The Hucksters, a novel by Frederic Wakeman, a former employee of the advertising agency Lord & Thomas. Between 1937 and 1945, Wakeman had developed radio programs and sales campaigns for corporate sponsors, an experience that apparently convinced him to conclude there was ‘no need to caricature radio. All you have to do,’ the author’s fictional spokesperson sneers, ‘is listen to it.’
Such ‘parting shots,’ as I call them in Immaterial Culture, resonated with an audience that, after years of fighting and home front sacrifices, found it sobering that Democratic ideals, the Four Freedoms and the Pursuit of Happiness were being reduced to the right – and duty – to consume. After a period of relative restraint, post-war radio went all out to spread such a message, until television took over and made that message stick with pictures showing the latest goods to get and guard against Communism.
Following – and no doubt encouraged by – the commercial success of The Hucksters, the soap opera writer Robert Hardy Andrews published Legend of a Lady, a novel set, like Wakeman’s fictional exposé, in the world of advertising. Andrews probably calculated that like The Hucksters and owing to it Legend would be adapted for the screen, as his novel Windfall had been.
Unlike in The Hucksters, the industry setting is secondary in Legend of a Lady. Andrews has less to say about radio than he has about women in the workforce. And what he has to say on that subject the dust jacket duly proclaims: ‘Legend of a Lady is the story of pretty, fragile Rita Martin, who beneath her charming exterior is hell-bent for personal success and who tramples with small, well-shod feet on all who stand in her way.’ The publisher insisted that ‘it would be hard to find a more interesting and appalling character.’
I did not read the blurb beforehand, and, knowing little about the novel other than the milieu in which it is set, I was not quite prepared for the treatment the title character receives not only by the men around her but by the author. The Legend of the Lady, which I finished reading yesterday, thinking it might be just the stuff for a reboot of my blog, opens intriguingly, and with cinematic potential, as the Lady in question picks up ‘her famous white-enameled portable typewriter in small but strong hands’ and throws it ‘through the glass in the office widow,’ right down onto Madison Avenue, the artificial heart of the advertising industry.
This is Mad Women, I thought, and looked forward to learning, in flashback, how a ‘small but strong’ female executive gets to weaponise a tool of the trade instead of dutifully sitting in front of it like so many stereotypical office gals. Legend of a Lady is ‘appalling’ indeed, reminding readers that dangerous women may be deceptively diminutive, that they are after the jobs held by their male counterparts, and that, rest assured, dear conservative reader, they will pay for it. In the end, Rita Martin, a single mother trying to gain independence from her husband and making a living during the Great Depression, exists an office ‘she would never enter again.’ Along the way, she loses everything –spoiler alert – from her sanity to her son.
The blurb promises fireworks, but what Legend of a Lady delivers is arson. It is intent on reducing to ashes the aspirational ‘legend’ of women who aim to control their destiny in post-war America. The world of soap opera writing and production serves as mere a backdrop to render such ambitions all the more misguided: soap operas are no more real than the claim that working for them is a meaningful goal. As a writer of serials for mass consumption, Robert Hardy Andrews apparently felt threatened and emasculated working in a business in which women achieved some success in executive roles. In a fiction in which men big and small suffer deaths and fates worth than that at the delicate hand of Rita Martin, Andrews created for himself a neo-romantic alter ego – the rude, nonchalant freelance writer Tay Crofton, who refuses to be dominated by a woman he would like to claim for himself but does not accept as a partner on her own terms, presumably because she cannot be entrusted with the power she succeeds in wresting from the men around her without as much as raising her voice.
Devoid of the trimmings and trappings of Hollywood storytelling, without glamor or camp, without gowns by Adrian or brows by Crawford, Legend of a Lady serves its misogyny straight up – but it couches its caution against ‘small’ women in spurious philosophy by claiming that, for men and women alike, there is life outside the proverbial squirrel cage that Andrews relentlessly rattles for his agonizing spin on the battle of the sexes.
“It’s not the end of the world.” How often do we utter those words, whether to calm ourselves or to dismiss the concerns of others. Well, I never found anything calming about that expression. It is the belittling by hyperbole that irks me. We tend to judge the gravity of a situation by the magnitude of its physical manifestations rather than the depth of feelings it produces in the experiencer. I, for one, have experienced the end of the world in early childhood; yet there is no evidence of an event having taken place, no trace of its existence save for the lachrymal salt on a crumpled pillow that, I suppose, was disposed of decades ago. No surface trace, that is.
One evening, in a working-class flat in the grim sterility of the German industrial town I was expected to call home, I overheard my parents make mention of the apocalypse. Someone had predicted that the world was going to end, and the date was set for the night to come. It was one of those doomsday prophecies that adults shrug off or subscribe to, depending on their intellect, faith and psychological make-up. As a child, I had no recourse to experience. I had no knowledge of having survived any number of doomsdays pronounced previously. Nor did I yet doubt that adults knew all and spoke true. I only had that night to go into, with a sense that it would be my last.
I was put to bed, and it felt as if I had been abandoned, cast out to face the unfathomable by myself. I was going to be no more. Everything I knew was to turn into unknowable nothingness. No one seemed troubled to prepare me for this chaos, the void that I already felt lying alone in the dark. I remember well the agony of that night, an angst that I now might term existential.
I have no recollection of the morning after. What followed, though, were years of nightmares involving the atom bomb, cold-war sweat inducing anxieties about nuclear fallout and the nihilism of the No Future generation, mingled, in my case, with an awareness of my queer otherness that made it seem impossible for me to go into those nights in a fellowship of the doomed.
No doubt, this is why Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Day’s Wait” appealed to me when I first read it as a teenager. It is a story of a boy who, owing to a momentous misunderstanding, believes himself to be dying. It is that story I chose to write about as an undergraduate student in English literature, even though it has often been dismissed as a minor work of magazine fiction beyond the canon of Hemingway’s supposed greatest. I, on the other hand, was drawn to what I read as its theme of trivialized sublimity and the terror of that trivialisation.
Until recently, I did not consider that my first last night might have been the beginning of the end, not of childhood – a concept I have long come to question – but of trust, faith, love and a sense of order and stability. Now, as I am preparing for a lecture on gothic ruins, I am piecing together those haunting, Frankensteinean fragments of my past and present selves, and I wonder just how much fell apart that one nightfall …
[This entry is dedicated to the students of my Gothic Imagination class, whom, during the last few weeks, I exposed to visualisations of nightmares, sublime views and dystopian visions.]
“Snobbish nonsense!” says one shabbily dressed young Londoner to another as they observe a man in a starched shirt and dinner jacket enter Broadcasting House. The man, they reckon, is an announcer about to go on the air, unseen yet meticulously groomed and attired. At the sight of which pointless and paradoxical propriety they sneer: “That whole place wants a dam’ good shake-up.” A “dam’ good shake-up.” That, in a coconut shell (to employ the most sound-effective nut in the business of radio dramatics), is what Val Gielgud and his collaborator Holt Marvell (the fanciful penname of fellow broadcaster Eric Maschwitz) set out to perform in Death at Broadcasting House (1934), a murder mystery set in and temporarily upsetting the reliable, predictable and frightfully proper BBC. Although I had know about it for quite some time, I just finished reading it; turns out, it’s a “dam’ good” page-turner, and a compelling commentary on the marginality, the relative obscurity of radio dramatics besides.
“There’s not a drop of good red blood about the whole place. Robots engaged in the retailing of tripe! That’s broadcasting!” one of the above sidewalk critics of the tried and generally trusted institution declares. It is clear, though, that Gielgud and Maschwitz did not side with the two self-styled “communists.” The authors were BBC employees and not about to stage a revolution. The “shake-up” was strictly a matter of maracas, a means of making some noise for their own undervalued accomplishments rather than spilling the beans without which those maracas would become utterly useless as instruments of ballyhoo.
Sure, broadcasting plays—minutely timed, meticulously rehearsed and intensely scrutinized—were far more mechanic than any other form of dramatic performance. Yet, as Gielgud insisted in one of his many articles on radio drama, “[i]n spite of [its] machine-like qualities” and “in spite of the lack of colour and applause, the work has a fascination of its own.” That the multitude for whom these performances were intended showed so little gratitude was frustrating to an actor-director like Gielgud, who sarcastically remarked a few years earlier that dismissive reviews in the press suggested, at least, that the broadcast play had “passed the first and most depressing stage of development—the stage of being entirely ignored.” By 1934, it had clearly not advanced to a stage that could be deemed legitimate.
What better way to gainsay those naysayers than to spill some of that “good red blood” or to stir it properly and to make it run hot and cold by turns. “A killing! In Broadcasting House, of all places! Good God!” is the response of General Sir Herbert Farquharson, the corporation’s fictional Controller. He has just been informed that an actor was done away with during the production of a live broadcast. “My god, sir,” the director of that play exclaims, “do you realize that everyone who heard that play must have heard him die? That makes it pretty unique in the annals of crime.”
That most folks tuning in thought little of it—that they believed it to be part of the drama—is owing to the fact that the murder was committed right at the moment when, according to the script, the character played by the victim was scheduled to breathe his last. A crime at once prominent and inconspicuous—like most radio dramas, performed as they were without a studio audience. After all, even the Controller, at the time of the murder, was attending a variety program staged in the specially designed Vaudeville Studio instead.
Death at Broadcasting House is the self-conscious performance of two radiomen, Gielgud and Maschwitz, fighting for the recognition that, for the most part, eludes those working behind the scenes—especially the folks behind the scenes of a largely invisible business. Their book, as they so slyly state, was “dedicated impertinently … to those critics who persistently deny that the radio pay exists, has existed, or ever can exist.” Radio plays existed, all right, but, for the most part, they died as soon as they were heard, if they were heard at all.
Unless, of course, they were blattnerphoned. “Blattnerphone?” the puzzled inspector exclaims. “Yes,” the BBC’s dramatic director, Julian Caird, explains:
“It’s a way of recording a programme on a steel tape so that it can be re-transmitted. We have to do a good deal of it for Empire work.” […]
“You mean we can hear that actual scene over again?”
“We can hear that scene,” said Caird, “not only over again, but over and over again. As often as you like. I wonder if the murderer thought of that?”
Probably not. Unless he numbers among the initiated few, folks like Caird—and Gielgud—who have their fingers at the controls, conjurers who don’t mind revealing some of their tricks to demonstrate just how powerful they are.
“The curious thing about the case what that it was both extremely simply and extremely complicated,” the inspector wraps up the business of detection. “It was extremely complicated only because it took place under very remarkable conditions—conditions which you wouldn’t find repeated anywhere else, and for which, of course, there was absolutely no precedent.” The same applies to Gielgud and Maschwitz’s fiction. However witty and engaging, the whodunit is entirely conventional. It is the setting, the broadcasting studio, that makes it unusual. The setting, thus, becomes the star of the production—a star without whose presence the show simply could not go on.
Indeed, the crime depends on the complexity of British radio production to be in need of detection. In American broadcasting, by comparison, all actors gathered in the same studio, a congregation that would render the unobserved strangling of one of them not only improbably but impossible. At the BBC, however, plays were produced using a multiple studios, a complex approach Gielgud’s stand-in explains thus:
[T]he chief reasons why we use several studios and not one, are two. The first is that by the use of separate studios, the producer can get different acoustic effects for his scenes…. Secondly, the modern radio play depends for its “continuity” … upon the ability to ‘fade’ one scene at its conclusion into the next. You can see at once that there must be at least two studios in use for these “fades” to be possible. In an elaborate play, therefore, the actors require as many studios as the varying acoustics of the different scenes require, while … sound effects have a studio of their own, gramophone effects one more, and the orchestra providing the incidental music yet another separate one.
Anyone who has ever listened to an American radio play of the 1930s, such as the ones produced by the Columbia Workshop, knows that no such complex arrangements are needed for the effective use of multiple fades and changes in acoustics. Death at Broadcasting House is a defense of the British system. It turns the multi-studio approach into something to be marveled at—an arcane system fit for a mystery, a puzzle whose solution requires the expertise of the initiated and thus vindicates the existence of the men masterminding the business with their hands firmly on that most complex of all pieces of broadcasting equipment: the dramatic control panel, which, Gielgud enthused elsewhere, enabled the director “to move at will, both in time and space, as simply as if he were travelling on the fabled magic carpet, and to take his audience with him.”