“Theater Is Not for Fags,” the sign reads. It was brandished, among other such boards, in a rather unconvincing crowd scene in “The Other Vibrator,” the possibly well-intentioned but insipid eleventh episode of Grace and Frankie’s third season, with which I eventually caught up only a few days ago. The morning after, I finished reading Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966). And the way that my wayward mind works, I put it down with that slogan in mind.
Retitled Death at the Dolphin, Marsh’s mystery novel was published in Britain in 1967, half a century before the Grace and Frankie episode first aired. That means it came before the public just as the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalized consensual – and private – homosexual acts among adult males in England and Wales. This being Gay Pride month, I am perhaps especially alert to anxieties surrounding gender and queer identity. At any rate, I detected an unease – or a playful response to public misgivings, actual or perceived –about homosexuality in Marsh’s narrative, which features a single gay character, and a minor one at that, while most of the other players – actors and creatives all – are carefully coupled in more or less, and mostly less, cosy heterosexual bonds.
Could it be, I wondered, that Marsh, herself a theater director, was sharing the sentiment that public playhouses – in swinging London, to boot – are not a platform for gay men?
As the world awaits news from Ukraine and its people awake daily to the sounds of shelling, many of us, having survived the pandemic that at once isolated and united us, become alive anew to our connectedness to world events and to the urgency, the necessity, of connecting dots in plain sight, and of listening out for tell-tale signs, be it the rumble of tanks or the roar of tyrants. We should have seen this one coming, we might suspect; but such hindsight provides no relief in the face of local destruction and global upheaval.
I am reminded of the events that came to be known as 9/11 – an attack that did not, as some claimed and many felt, hit us ‘out of the blue’ on that bright September morning – and of feeling both helpless and useless in the wake of the terror that would shape history. I was teaching writing in the Bronx, and I was researching radio drama of the 1930s. None of that seemed to matter at a moment when digging in and digging up – literally and figuratively – was felt to be needed to uncover lives lost and recover the history that had gotten us to that point. I kept on teaching writing, and I kept on researching radio – and I strove to find the usefulness and relevance of both. That is, I did not carry on “regardless.”
Instead of retreating into the past of broadcasts decades old, I tried to retrieve messages pertinent to the present. And while we might think that messages are merely repeated rather than being heeded, we may also find that we did receive them and that we are capable of learning from history even as a world leader insists on repeating it.
Take, for instance, Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City.” First produced and broadcast in the US on 11 April 1937 – with a cast including Orson Welles and Burgess Meredith, and a score by Bernard Herrmann – it was a response to the rise of a dictator who, unchecked and unresisted, conquers a city despite warning voices from the past – the ancient and the dead. In MacLeish’s allegory, the ‘conquerer’ is not a person: it is fear. It is fatalism. It is the surrender of freedom to fascism.
In “The Fall of the City,” a radio announcer (played by Welles in the 1937 production) serves as our eyes, an observer by proxy reporting from the scene of an unnamed city. MacLeish’s plays – from “Air Raid” to “The Trojan Horse” – are never simply plays for the medium of radio but also plays about that medium – about tuning in from a distance, about mediation and reception, and about misinformation and deception. The listeners are implicated, their role in the event of listening reflected upon in the shared act of telling stories and hearing histories in the making.
“The sun is yellow with smoke,” the announcer informs the audience, “the town’s burning…. The war’s at the broken bridge.” It is impossible to listen to those lines now without seeing the cities under siege in Ukraine; and yet, “The Fall of the City” – which was broadcast just two weeks prior to the arial bombing of Guernica in April 1937 but written some months earlier, in 1936 – not about the reality of any particular invasion but about the real threat posed by evasiveness. It caution against giving in to ideas and being enslaved by ideologies, for which it was criticised during the Second World War: “In these last years,” Randall Jarrell, himself a poet, wrote in 1943:
many millions of these people, over the entire world, have died fighting their oppressors. Say to them that they invented their oppressors, wished to believe in them, wished to be free of their freedom; that they lie there.
Jarrell wrote this in the aftermath of air raids, and the war of ideas were not uppermost on his mind.
I do not know whether I am writing at a moment that future records might document to be days or weeks before the start of a Third World War. I know I am writing it in wartime. Unlike in the scenario envisioned by MacLeish, the world is not only watching the atrocities perpetrated by Russians in the towns and cities of Ukraine; it is responding, both to aid Ukrainian civilians (my sister in Germany has welcomed Ukrainian refugees into her home) and to avoid an escalation of military conflict. Unlike the abstract “citizens” of MacLeish’s play, men and women are resisting. Cities do not fall. They are attacked. They are defended. They are fought over. And it is citizens – civilians – that are doing the fighting.
How different this fight is from the defeat as MacLeish conceived it. “The city is doomed,” the Voices of Citizens in his play declare,
The age is his! It’s his century!
Our institutions are obsolete.
He marches a mile while we sit in a meeting.
Opinions and talk!
Deliberative walks beneath the ivy and the creepers!
His doubt comes after the deed or never.
He knows what he wants for his want’s what he he knows.
He’s gone before they say he’s going.
He’s come before you’ve barred your house.
He’s one man: we are but thousands!
Who can defend us from one man?
Bury your arms! Break your standards!
Give him the town while the town stands!
We know the price of such surrender. Putin might have believed that his invasion would meet with little or no resistance, and that the global community, understood as a community, is powerless in the face of his aggression. Putin’s methods date from the past; his mind, however made up it may be, was made up last century. It is no match for what humanity can achieve if we – and that includes the people of Russia – put our minds and methods to it. Right now, his thinking and his tanks, his misfiring strategies and his unwillingness to listen, are being answered by the rallying cries of the present that will help us secure a future.
Just what is ‘gothic’? And how useful is the term when loosely applied to products of visual culture, be it paintings, graphic novels, movies or the posters advertising them? Aside from denoting a literary genre and a style of architecture, in which usages I recommend setting it aside by making the ‘g’ upper case, the term ‘gothic,’ understood as a mode, can be demonstrated to take many shapes, transcend styles, media, cultures and periods. It can also be demonstrated not make sense at all as a grab bag for too many contradictory and spurious notions many academics, to this day, would not want to be caught undead espousing. Those are the views I take on and the potentialities I test out with students of my module Gothic Imagination at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.
As the gothic cannot thrive being crammed into a series of seminars, let alone been exsanguinated or talked to death in academic lectures, I created an extracurricular festival of film screenings to explore the boundaries of the visual gothic beyond genre and style. The fourth film in the chronologically arranged series, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), demonstrates that the gothic struggles to thrive as well when its sublime powers are expended in a game of wartime chess.
The fourth entry in a series of Universal B-movies that began in 1939, prior to the end of US isolationism, as feature films, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is a formulaic whodunit in which the gothic is an accessory to crime fiction, and in which suspects, some more usual than others, are lined up like cardboard grotesques for deployment in a mock-Gothic extravaganza executed on a budget.
Now, as a lover of whodunits and epigrams, I do not object to formula or economics. I can appreciate budget-regard even when I long for that rara avis. For the gothic, however, a cocktail consisting in measures equal or otherwise of solvable mystery and final-solution mastery is a cup of hemlock. Granted, the attempt to serve it and make it palatable to the public creates a tension of intentions that may well give motion picture executives and censors nightmares.
I discuss such messaging mixers in the context of radio plays in a chapter of Immaterial Culture I titled “‘Until I know the thing I want to know’: Puzzles and Propaganda,” in which Holmes and Watson also feature.
After all, at the same time the pair set the world aright in twentieth-century wartime scenarios, Holmes and Watson continued to solve crime in the gaslit alleyways of late-Victorian and Edwardian London, or suitably caliginous settings elsewhere in the British Isles, in pastiches in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were heard on the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio program that aired in the US at the same time:
As Sherlock Holmes director Glenhall Taylor recalled, the series was one of several sponsored programs whose “services were requested by the War Department.” The charms of an imagined past were to yield to visible demonstrations of the responsibilities broadcasters and audiences shared in the shaping of the future. To promote the sale of defense bonds during the War Loan Drives, Bruce and co-star Basil Rathbone appeared in “special theatrical performances,” live broadcasts to which “admission was gained solely through the purchase of bonds.” (Heuser, Immaterial Culture 189)
To be sure, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is less overtly propagandist than the previous three entries in Universal’s film series, all of which are anti-fascist spy thrillers. Adapted, albeit freely, from a story by their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the case they took on subsequently recalled the titular detective and his faithful sidekick from Washington, DC, and released them back into their fog-shrouded habitat in and for which they had been conceived.
And yet, whatever the setting, in motion pictures Holmes and Watson continued to face adversaries that were recognisably anti-democratic – stand-ins for the leaders of the Axis. The villain of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, diagnosed as egomaniacal by Holmes, is no exception.
Much of the action of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death takes place in an ancestral pile that has been temporarily converted into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. Those inmates may have their idiosyncrasies, as all flat characters do, but, to serve their purpose in a piece of propaganda, they cannot truly be plotting murder, unless there are exposed as phoneys, in which case the reassurances of wartime service honored and government assistance rendered would be called into question.
The unequivocal messages the Sherlock Holmes films were expected to spread in wartime did not allow for such murky developments. A post-war noir thriller might sink its teeth into corruption; but the Sherlock Holmes series did not exhibit such fangs.
Nor could the recovering soldiers be shown to be so mentally unstable as to kill without motive; according to the convention of whodunits, even serial killers like Christie’s Mr. ABC follow a certain logic that can be ascertained. The heiress of Musgrave Manor may be momentarily distraught, the butler may be exposed as an unstable drunkard – but the soldiers, whatever horrors and shocks they endured on the battlefield, can only be moderately muddled.
Most of the recovering servicemen – in their fear of unwrapped parcels or their fancy for knitting – are called upon to provide comic relief, bathos being a key strategy of the domesticated gothic. In the Sherlock Holmes series, that is a part generally allotted to Dr. Watson, a role he performs even in this particular installment, in which his expertise as a man of medicine is put to use for the war effort. Inspector Lestrade serves a similar purpose, which is probably what made the ridiculing of military personnel seem less objectionable to sponsors, as it made them look fairly inconsequential to the crime caper unfolding. Aligning those men with Watson and Lestrade assists in eliminating them from the start as potential suspects.
While missing legal documents and cryptic messages are certifiably Gothic tropes, the gothic atmosphere in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is fairly grafted on the proceedings with the aid of visuals. There are genre Gothic trimmings aplenty in – secret passages, a bolt of lightning striking a hollow suit of armor, and pet raven assuming the role of harbinger of death – but there is no real sense of menace as, guided by the infallibly capable hands of Sherlock Holmes, we negotiate with relative ease the potentially treacherous territory of a mansion as makeshift asylum and contested castle.
The climax, which tries to cast doubt as to Holmes’s perspicacity, plays out in a dimly lit cellar. It is here that the gothic could potentially take hold if the plot had not preemptively diffused the dangerous situation hinted at in the film’s title. The trap for the killer below has already been laid above-ground on the newly polished surface of a giant chessboard, in a display of strategy choreographed by Holmes himself. By the time the game moves underground, it is no longer afoot; rather, it is fairly limping along.
Gothic and propaganda can mix; genre Gothic fiction often served political purposes. Gothic and whodunit are less readily reconciled. Although John Dickson Carr tried hard to make that happen, often in an antiquarian sort of way, the Victorian Sensation novelists and the had-I-but-known school of crime writers come closer to achieving that. But the handling of all three of those form or raisons d’être for writing – Gothic, whodunit and propaganda – by the jugglers employed here, at least, is not a formula designed to make the most of mystery and suspense. As I concluded in my discussion of the “identity crisis” of the wartime radio thriller, “propagandist work was complicated by the challenge of puzzling and prompting the audience, of distracting and instructing at once.”
Sherlock Holmes faces death, all right, but the demise he encounters is that of the gothic spirit.
“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.
My copy of Tuning in to the Neo-Avant-Garde: Experimental Radio Plays in the Postwar Period arrived in the mail today. Chapter 3 bears the somewhat cumbersome title “A Forefront in the Aftermath? Recorded Sound and the State of Audio Play on Post-‘Golden Age’ US Network Radio.” My contribution to the volume, it is a sequel of sorts to Immaterial Culture, in which I sought to engage with radio plays written and produced in the United States between 1929 and 1954 – before sitting in front of the television became a national pastime in the US. The chapter looks at plays written and produced in the wake of that so-called ‘golden age of radio.’
In status and quality of production but not initially in quantity, radio plays in the United States decreased rapidly in the 1950s. The ‘Aftermath’ referred to in my title meant an adjustment to the political developments and economic realities of post-Second World War society. It reflects at once victory and defeat, opportunity and opportunism: the redefinition of the Pursuit of Happiness in terms of consumer culture, the concrete threat of anti-Communism, and the effect both had on the production, distribution and the experience of aural art.
In my writing, as in my teaching, I tend to be concerned primarily with definitions and the questioning of terminology. What is ‘radio’ about radio plays, for instance? And what, if anything, makes them ‘avant-garde’ rather than merely ‘experimental’?
Addressing the conflation of – or the disregard for – production and broadcasting in discussions of radio plays qua texts, “A Forefront in the Aftermath?” considers the questions whether a radio play not ‘heard over the radio’ is still a radio play and whether aural play can meaningfully be termed ‘avant-garde’ without regard to the conditions under which it is produced and the system in which it becomes enmeshed.
When, in 2018, I was invited to submit a proposal for the conference Tuning in to the Neo-Avant-garde, I set out by mulling over the term ‘neo-avant-garde’ to determine whether I could make a meaningful contribution to the discussion. As someone who has devoted a doctoral study, an obscure book, and several hundred blog posts to mid-twentieth century US radio culture, I harbored doubts about the aptness of the label ‘neo-avant-garde’ in the context of my endeavor to keep up with texts presumably well past their sell-by date: plays created for and broadcast on US American network radio priorto 1954 – the year that the TV dinner came on the market to drive home that radio was no longer fresh, the year that retired radio satirist Fred Allen, reflecting on his career in broadcasting, declared that radio had been ‘abandoned like the bones at a barbecue.’ “A Forefront in the Aftermath” examines the leftovers – and it has a bone to pick with those who glean selectively.
Examining recordings of US network radio broadcasts dating from, roughly, the first decade after the end of the Second World War, alongside commercial records and tape recording exchanges, my essay seeks to demonstrate how experimental ‘radio play’ – as distinguished from the broader term ‘audio play’ – was defined and circumscribed by the system of network broadcasting. The creative possibilities of recorded sound, in particular, where never fully explored.
It is no coincidence that, just as New York City was becoming the centre of the Western art world – and sound recording was gaining recognition as art – radio ceased to be regarded as a medium for artistic experimentation, which it had been, to some extent, in the 1930s and early 1940s. Experimentation, once in the service of left-wing, anti-fascist causes, had no utility for broadcasters when such an agenda no longer served to unify the US American public against foreign powers, as wartime propaganda had done.
In recent years, modernist scholars have tried to claim the output of the popular medium for modernism. Calling the guarded play of popular culture ‘avant-garde’ – after decades of disregard – is part of that misguided and rather disingenuous effort. The fact that US network radio does not fit modernist narratives suggests that constructs such as modernism are not fit for the purpose of catching up with the unclassifiable products of the past.
How many times have I said to myself, “Wake up and hear the tulips”? Literally, never. But the improbability of following such a directive has crossed my mind, especially during the pandemic that has kept us from venturing out into the world and fully to engage all of our senses. Seeing images of flowers is hardly the same thing as experiencing spring.
The limitations of vicarious living online have made themselves felt. I, for one, am not feeling it anymore, this ersatz world of keeping in touch without touching, of being nosey without the chance of a whiff, of getting a taste of what it’s like out there without getting as much as a morsel of it inside me.
That said, here I am online, flicking through digitized magazines and newspapers of yesteryear, a forest of ancient pulp springing back to life for a belated flowering. Searching for nothing in particular, I came across this headline in an edition of Radio Dial dating from 20 May 1937: “Ted Husing to Describe Tulip Festival.” Is there anything less phonogenic than an oversized still life of flowers?
More incongruous than the idea of devoting a sound-only broadcast to such a spectacle is the choice of Ted Husing as the guy to try out his ekphrastic skills on it. Was not Husing a celebrated sportscaster, typecast as such in movies like To Please a Lady (1950), as I mentioned here a long while back? It must have been challenging for him to get animated when tasked with the assignment of making Liliaceae sound lively through verbal acrobatics. I’m guessing. I never heard the broadcast.
‘Actually,’ sports were only one aspect of his career in radio. Husing remarked in retrospect that he ‘logged far more broadcasting time on music and special events.’ He claimed to have been responsible for the discovery or promotion of entertainers including Rudy Vallee, Guy Lombardo, Bing Crosby, and Desi Arnaz.
Husing had a nose for radio’s no-show business, all right. In fact, he had it broken for that very purpose, as he explained it in his first autobiography, Ten Years Before the Mike (1935):
Some of the acoustics experts and sinus engineers decided my voice would have a bit more resonance if my antrums were widened. Or is it antra? Anyhow, since the technical people had spent years perfecting microphones especially for my vocal vibrations, I couldn’t see how I could hold back on my antrums, personal as they are to me. So I went to the sawbones, took a couple of shots of coke, and had ’em broken out.
Having gone through such lengths, you might as well travel to Holland to tell folks at home what tulips look like. In fact, Husing only went as far as Holland, Michigan, where the festival in question was held annually. And it wasn’t all about the tulips, either, as tiptoers were given a run for their money by the ‘Klompen Dance,’ an orchestrated clacking of thousands of wooden shoes on the pavement. The article also threatened folk songs. Not much demand for subtle word-painting there.
Antrum, tantrum. However he felt that day, Husing was lucky to have had assignments like this, to have spent years translating observed sights into spoken words. Lucky, because he ended up losing his eyesight after a brain tumor operation. I imagine that spending much of his life on the air, creating a world made of sound helped him to shape a life for himself that was focused on the vision he only partially recovered.
Sure, radio is a sound-only medium; but it encourages the translative act of hearing that opens us up to the senses that we might lose sight of if we rely too much on our eyes. No need to cue those Klompen Dancers to drive the point home.
In 1998, as an international PhD student, I enrolled in a Queer Theory class taught by Wayne Koestenbaum at the CUNY Graduate Center. At the time, I was making the for me difficult decision to abandon the Victorian subject of my Master’s thesis (Thomas Carlyle as a translator of Goethe) and embark instead on something almost entirely different (‘almost’ because this subject, too, involved translative acts): a study of radio plays prior to the invention of the “TV Dinner.”
That study eventually, belatedly, turned into a largely unread book. I just never managed to make a career out of my love for the subject of radio, and, being unable to communicate my love, and to get some love in return, came to feel disheartened about loving the wrong thing or loving wrongly or being wrong about loving it — getting it all wrong by not making the right kind of botch of it that can translate into an academically viable “Queer Art of Failure.”
“[O]nce again I realize how difficult it is to talk about what one loves,” Barthes write in “The Romantic Song.” “What is there to say about what one loves except: I love it, and to keep on saying it?” Academically, is it any easier to talk about what one dreads, what one is anxious or frustrated about? This is something I aim to explore in a paper I termed “The Gothic of Audition: Audionarratology, Transdisciplinarity and Old-Time Radio Listening as Self-Othering.” It is meant, in part, to announce two academic essays of mine on the subject of radio, which are being published in 2021.
Preparing for my talk, I was reminded of my former self giving a seminar presentation as part of that “Queer Theory” class at CUNY. Back then, I was testing the treacherous territory of listening (more treacherous now that I suffer from hearing loss and tinnitus) by reading Barthes writing about it and the inability of getting it right. Here is that presentation.
“When ‘it goes without saying’: Barthes as Lecturer and Lover”
“Hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act,” Barthes, stiffening once again into a lecturer’s posture, begins “Listening,” the first of seven discrete essays forced into the thematic stays of “Music’s Body.” I, not all ears, resist “Listening” since it speaks without heeding me, since it fortifies the very boundaries between speaker (lecturer) and listener (reader) it dismisses as “the old modes of listening: those of the believer, the disciple, and the patient.”
While concluding that “freedom of listening is as necessary as freedom of speech,” that “a free listening is essentially a listening which circulates, which permutates, which disaggregates, by its mobility, the fixed network of the roles of speech,” Barthes is not quite willing here to mingle his voice in the “interplay of desire” in which my “listening speaks” of us. For as soon as I — hoping to find, beyond pose and podium, beyond the reverberations of “power and desire” immured and perpetuated by Barthes’s argument, another more congenial (or conjugal) voice whispering itself into my presence, wishing itself to be engendered in my mouth — begin listening instead “for the alien,” the “irregular noise which will disturb . . . the security of the house” (to me, the Barthesian aula), for “the secret” the “speaking subject does not say,” I find my responses anticipated, circumscribed, and myself well-nigh divested of all ludic impulses. It shuts me up so, Barthes’s “little theater.”
As listener, as speaking listener, Barthes claims the artistic freedom of which I found myself bereft. In “Musica Practica,” for example, he declares that “to read this Beethoven is to perform, to operate his music, to lure it (as it lends itself) into an unknown praxis.” Our wanderings, reader, are Barthes’s truly unknown praxis; and at times it seems that he must account for us in theory to keep alive the echo of his voice, an echo even my receptive mouth cannot swallow. And while “Listening” is finally unveiled as a “collaboration” (between two Rolands, Barthes and Havas), it is a connubial effort, a lovemaking from which I as listener appear to have been excluded. There are other moments, however — the ones that I am loving.
How glorious are those moments (quite generously bestowed) when Barthes steps from the dais into our everyday, when his voice fumbles, his vocables falter, when he shares with us that language, “when it must interpret music,” manages but “badly, very badly, it seems,” as he laments in “The Grain of the Voice”; when the controlled prose of the lecturer deliquesces in the passionate effusions of a lover, as it does in “The Romantic Song,” “Loving Schumann,” and “Rasch.” It is here that Barthes sings “à tue-tête,” “to kill everything bad.”
In “The Romantic Song,” Barthes claims the Lieder of Schubert and Schumann — “unisexual,” “amorous,” beyond the traditional family of voices (the voices of family?) — for those who, like the Lied itself, are no “respecters of sexes or of social roles,” are “marginal without being eccentric,” and celebrates instead the “song of the natural body,” the “music which has meaning only if I can always sing it, in myself, with my body” and “for myself.”
The reverberations here have moved inward, from the austere, public auditorium to the tremulous, private body, and I–humming Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume” or Schumann’s Dichterliebe–can follow Barthes in this trans-social state of “solitary intimacy,” listening only to the “amorous and imprisoned soul that speaks to itself” (“Loving Schumann”).
Are we lovers then, Barthes and I? Has our duel over territory turned into a duet honoring a third? Is Barthes’s lectura transformed into our lectus? Not quite; rather, Barthes and I, solitary, are rubbing our skins loving. “Intimacy,” as Barthes suggests, “is always a little egoistic”: “the Schumannian pianist—c’est moi”/The Schubertian Sänger—das bin ich!” To dance about Schumann, must we, the men (and women) of “Lettres Dansantes” erect a theater to position our listeners? To sing of Schubert, need we construct a theoretical apparatus to secure a space for the speaker?
Few essays illustrate more vividly than “The Grain of the Voice” the Barthesian doubling of lecturer and lover. It is a queer essay that struggles with theory, that desires to evaluate song “outside of the law” of both culture and anti-culture, by “develop[ing] beyond the subject all the value which is hidden behind ‘I like’ or ‘I don’t like.’” There is no accounting for loving — and any theory, for the “grain” or against it, is such an accounting (I love it because . . . ). It is precisely when the lecturer realizes that his “difficulty [writing about the Lied ] is all the greater in that today the romantic song is no longer the object of any great argument,” that the lover can emerge, bewegt, aufgeregt, innig, to say, fantasierend: “I love it, and to keep on saying it.”
“Music, like signifying, derives from no metalanguage” but “from a lover’s discourse,” Barthes offers in “Music, Voice, Language.” Finding the lover’s voice in Barthes’s lectures is a listening hallucinated: Now I too “believe I am really hearing what I would like to hear as a promise of pleasure.”
As my motto ‘Keeping up with the out-of-date’ is meant to suggest, I tend to look toward the past; and yet, I resist retreat. Retrospection is not retrogressive; nor need it be it a way of reverencing what is presumably lost or of gaining belated control over what back at a certain time of ‘then’ was the uncertainty of life in progress. I am interested in finding the ‘now’ – my ‘now’ – in the ‘then,’ or vice versa, and in wresting currency from recurrences.
I also tend to look at the ephemeral and everyday, the disposable objects or throwaway remarks we think or rather do not think of at all and dismiss as immaterial and obsolete, as too flimsy to carry any weight for any length of time. Take an old syndicated newspaper column such as John Crosby’s “Radio in Review,” for instance. Back in November 1948, Crosby, whose writing was generally concerned with programs and personalities then on the air, commented on a US presidential election that apparently no one, at least no one in the news media, had predicted accurately. “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune erroneously read on 3 November that year. Having listened to the words dispensed over the airwave on that day after – or, depending on your politics, in the aftermath of an election that paved the way for another term for President Harry S. Truman – Crosby noted:
‘Perhaps never before have such handsome admissions of error reverb[e]rated from so many lips with such a degree of humility as they did on the air last week.’ Truman had been in office since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945; but in 1948, he had confirmation at last that the public – or the majority of those who made their views public and official – agreed that he belonged there. As Crosby pointed out, even seasoned political commentators had predicted a Republican victory.
‘[T]here probably never has been an election post-mortem in which the words “I told you so” were not heard at all,’ the columnist remarked, adding that ‘if they were said, [he] didn’t hear them.’ To his knowledge, ‘[n]o professional commentators … told anyone so.’
Among those who, according to Crosby, got it more wrong than others was the ultra-conservative broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr., an opportunist and influencer who, Crosby remarked, had gone ‘far beyond’ his fellow commentators by predicting ‘Republican victories in states where most observers foresaw a seesaw battle.’
Speaking from the secular pulpit that was his radio program, Lewis ‘fully admitted his wrongness’ after the fact, Crosby noted, reading aloud the messages he received from listeners who ‘invited him to drop dead,’ to ‘throw himself’ into Chesapeake Bay, or to ‘go soak his head in a vinegar barrel.’ Far from remorseful or self-deprecating, such revelling in controversy is representative of right-wing provocation as we experience it to this day.
A question not posed by Crosby is whether future Barry Goldwater supporter Lewis simply got it wrong – or whether he predicted wrongly to demoralise Truman’s supporters by suggesting that a Republican landslide was a foregone conclusion. Given Lewis’s known bias, the miscalculation was obviously not calculated to rattle Truman supporters out of complacency. So, a question worth asking now not how commentators got it so wrong, but why.
Lowell Thomas, a conservative commentator courting an audience of both major parties, insisted that he had not predicted the election but that he had merely ‘passed along the opinions of others.’ Thomas added, however, that, had he made a prediction, ‘he’d have been as wrong as everyone else.’ Unlike Lewis, this statement suggests, Thomas distinguished between reportage and commentary, the line between which was drawn no more clearly in 1948 broadcasting than it is in today’s mass media, discredited though they are as ‘legacy’ and presumably obsolete by the social media weaponizing political right.
Reporter Elmer Davis who, also unlike Lewis, was critical of then on-the-rise Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Democrat who turned Republican and opposed the Truman presidency for being soft on Communism, provided this statement to his listeners: ‘Any of us,’ he said, ‘who analyze news on the radio or in the papers must hesitate to try to offer any explanation to a public which remembers too well the lucid and convicing explanations we all offered day before yesterday of why Dewey had it in the bag.’ Commentators had ‘beaten’ their ‘breasts’ and ‘heaped ashes’ on their heads since the election, Davis told his audience; but they still looked ‘pretty foolish’ and should probably wait some time before sticking their ‘necks’ out again.
‘Cheer up, you losers,’ veteran newscaster H. V. Kaltenborn declared on his radio program, ‘It isn’t so bad as you think.’ The peculiar mash-up of scoffing, commiserating, mind-reading and prognosticating did not escape Crosby, who wondered just what went on in the ‘mind’ of someone who, more than having misjudged who lost, might himself have lost it.
The ‘explanations as to why President Truman won were almost as identical as the pre-election prediction that he wouldn’t,’ Crosby observed, namely that the nation ‘liked an underdog.’ Just how much of an ‘underdog’ can a presidential incumbent be? Playing one on TV would prove a winning formula for Donald Trump, at least, and the kind of doghouse he managed to furnish for himself, which is so unlike the residence some of us envision as rightfully his, provides support of that theory.
Summing up the state of desperation among commentators, Crosby stated that ‘many’ of them derived rather ‘odd comfort’ from the fact that US ally turned adversary Josef Stalin, who likewise incorrectly predicted a win for Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, ‘had been just as wrong as they were.’
Sure, there is momentary relief in Schadenfreude, seeing those who got it wrong having to admit – or trying to avoid admitting – the fact that, in hindsight, they were demonstrably wrong, and, being wrong, on the wrong side of the future. And yet, getting it wrong may also be evidence of wrongdoing, of deceit and deviousness. As someone relegated to the sidelines, I can offer only one reasonable piece of advice to those who prefer a Truman over a Trump: pay attention to but do not trust folks who are determined to convince you that your vote does not matter much by declaring the game to be over when it is still afoot.
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.