Eyre Apparent: Adoption, Adaptation and the ‘orphan child of accepted literature’

The most recent item to enter my collection of ephemera is a somewhat tattered, unpublished radio script (pictured above).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.’

Sweetness and The Eternal Light

My bookshelf, like my corporeal shell, has gotten heavier over the years. The display, like my waist, betrays a diet of nutritionally questionable comfort food—of sugar and spice and everything nice.  Now, I won’t take this as an opportunity to ponder just what it is that I am made of; but those books sure speak volumes about the quality of my food for thought.  There is All About Amos ‘n’ Andy (1929), The Story of Cheerio (1937), and Tony Wons’s Scrap Book (1930).  There is Tune in Tomorrow (1968), the reminiscences of a daytime serial actress, There’s Laughter in the Air (1945) and Death at Broadcasting House (1934). There are a dozen or so anthologies of scripts for radio programs ranging from The Lone Ranger to Ma Perkins, from Duffy’s Tavern to The Shadow.

My excuse for my preoccupation with such post-popular culture, if justification were needed, has always been that there is nothing so light not to warrant reflection or reverie, that dismissing flavors and decrying a lack of taste is the routine operation of the insipid mind.  That said, I am glad to have added—thanks to my better half, who looks after my dietary needs—a book that makes my shelf figuratively heavier rather than merely literally so.

The book in question is The Eternal Light (1947), an anthology of twenty-six plays aired on that long-running program.  It is a significant addition, indeed—historically, culturally, and radio dramatically speaking.

In the words of Louis Finkelstein, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, under whose auspices the series was produced, The Eternal Light was a synthesis of scholarship and artistry, designed to “translate ancient, abstract ideas into effective modern dramatics.”

In his introductory essay “Radio as a Medium of Drama,” Morton Wishengrad, the playwright of the series, defended broadcasting as a valuable if often misused “tool.” He did so at a time when, in the disconcerting newness of postwar opportunity and responsibility, radio was increasingly—and indiscriminately—dismissed as the playground of Hucksters, to name a bestselling novel of 1946 whose subject, like Herman Wouk’s Aurora Dawn (1947), was the prosperity and self-importance of the broadcasting industry in light of the perceived vacuity of its product.

“An automobile does not manufacture bank-robbers,” Wishengrad reasoned,
it transports them.  It also transports clergymen.  It is neither blameworthy because it does the first nor is it an instrument of piety because it does the latter.  It is merely an automobile, a tool.
 What the medium needed—and what the times required—were writers who had “something to say about the culture.”

According to Wishengrad, there was “nothing wrong” with the techniques of radio writing.  He noted that serial drama, derided and reviled by “demonstrably incompetent” reviewers, had great storytelling potential:
Here are quarter-hour segments in the lives of people which could transfigure a part of each day with dramatic truth and an intimation of humanity instead of presenting as they now do a lolly-pop on the instalment plan.
A “lolly-pop on the instalment plan”! To paraphrase Huckster author Frederic Wakeman’s parody of radio commercials: love that phrase. Wishengrad is one of a small number of American radio dramatists whose scripts remain memorable and compelling even in the absence of the actors and sound effects artist who interpreted them.  Of the latter’s métier Wishengrad wrote: “Sound is like salt.  A very little suffices.”  He cautioned writers, in their “infatuation with its possibilities,” not to “drown” their scripts in aural effects.

Wishengrad’s advice to radio dramatists is as sound as his prose.  “Good radio dialogue,” he held, should come across “like a pair of boxers trading blows, short, swift, muscular, monosyllabic.”  Speeches, he cautioned, ought not to “be long because the ear does not remember.  There is quick forgetfulness of everything except the last phrase or the last word spoken.”

While Wishengrad made no use of serialization in The Eternal Light—as much as the title suggests the continuation and open-endedness of the form—his scripts bear out what he imparts about style and live up to his insistence on substance.  Take “The Day of the Shadow,” for instance.  Produced and broadcast over NBC stations on 18 November 1945, the play opens:
Listen.  Listen to the silence.  I have come from the land of the day of the shadow.  I have seen the naked cities and the dead lips.  Someone must speak of this.  Someone must speak of the memory of things destroyed.
The abstract gives way to the concrete, as the speaker introduces himself as the “Chaplain who stood before the crematorium of Belsen.”
I have buried 23,000 Jews.  I have a right to speak.   I stood the last month in Cracow when “Liberated” Jews were murdered.  I have no pretty things to tell you.  But I must tell you.
The “plain, and written down, and true” figures—appropriated from the “adding machines of the statisticians”—tell of the silenced.  But, the Chaplain protests, “[l]et the adding machines be still,” and let the survivors—the yet dying—speak; not of the past but of the continuum of their plight, of the aftermath that comes after math has accounted for the eighty percent of Europe’s Jewish population who were denied outright the chance to make their lives count.

At the time The Eternal Light was published, radio drama, too, was dying; at least the drama with a purpose and a faith in the medium.  To this date, it is a body unresuscitated; and what is remembered of it most is what is comforting rather than demanding, common rather than extraordinary.  Shelving the candy, resisting the impulse to reach for the sweet and the obvious—the lolly-popular—I realize anew just what has been lost to us, what we have given up, what we have forgotten to demand or even to long for . . .

14 Gay Street: NYC, Myself and Eileen

An Argosy find

I had walked past this place many an evening on the way to Ty’s, my favorite Greenwich Village watering hole.  This time, though, it was mid-afternoon and I turned left, leaving Christopher for Gay Street.  I had come here specially to take a picture of number 14, the former residence of two sisters who, for about a quarter of a century or so, were household names across America.  Ruth and Eileen McKenney had been on my mind ever since I saw that production of Wonderful Town on a visit to Manchester, England—and the gals, whose misadventures are tunefully related in said musical, seemed determined to stay there.  On my mind, that is, not up in the Salford docklands; though, judging from their experience way down here on Gay Street, they might not have minded the docks.

A few days earlier, I had happened upon a copy of Ruth McKenney’s All About Eileen (1952) in the basement of the Argosy, one of my favorite antiquarian bookstores in town.  I hadn’t even been looking for it at the time.  In fact, I had been unaware that such an anthology of McKenney’s New Yorkerstories existed.

Eileen was lying there all the same—prominently if carelessly displayed, draped in a flashy, tantalizingly torn jacket that stood out among the drab, worn-out linen coats of a great number of unassuming second-hand Roses about to be put in their place—waiting to be picked up.  I don’t flatter myself.  My company was of no consequence to Eileen.  If I was being lured, it was no doubt owing to an itch Eileen had to get out of yet another basement.


Not straight ahead

Thinking of the case I had to lug to the airport before long—and the less than commodious accommodations that would await Eileen in my study—I had hesitated and walked out alone; but I soon changed my mind, returned to the Argosy, and, to my relief, found Eileen still there, though shifted a little as if to say “I’m not thateasy” and to make me suffer for waffling.

14 Gay Street
And here I was now, a week later.  14 Gay Street.  It’s an unassuming walk-up, next to a scaffolded shell of a building that, a friend told me, had been on fire a while ago.  Walk-up! More like a step-down for Ruth and Eileen. The two had been naïve enough to rent barely-fit-for-living quarters below street level, unaware that the construction of a new subway line was going to rattle their nerves and rob them of what one of their first visitors, a burglar, could not readily bag: their sleep.
“[W]e lived in mortal terror falling into the Christopher Street subway station,” Ruth recalled, making light of her darksome days in their damp “little cave.”

Every time a train roared by, some three feet under our wooden floor, all our dishes rattled, vases swayed gently, and startled guests dropped drinks.

Wisteria on Gay Street
From the outside, at least, 14 Gay Street looked perfectly serene on that quiet, sunny afternoon.  I was not the only one stopping by, though.  I walked up to what I assumed to be a fellow admirer of Eileen’s; as it turned out, he was oblivious that the very spot had given rise to such lore as was retold on page, screen and stage.  He only had eyes for the wisteria that had taken its chances—and its time—to sidle up to and ravage a neighboring property.
Imposing as that looked, I had my heart set on those small dark windows peering from behind the pavement like a pair of Kilroy peepers.  Eileen was here, I thought, and was glad to have seen what seemed too little to look at.  Indifference, after all, is in the passerby’s eye.
I wonder now: How many sites of the city—fabled but forsaken—are daily escaping the sightseer’s gaze?

I Remember, Mama: Complicity, Mendacity, and Other Desert Cities

Once, as I recalled here before, I had the audacity to tell a well-known biographer, whose student I was, that I had no respect for writers of other people’s life stories.  Unless content to be mere chroniclers, recording activities and recounting events, they are fabricators of interiorities that, I was—and am— convinced, are unknowable to anyone other than the single occupant of that interior.  For all our confidences and intimations, we are ultimately unreadable to one another.

In order to turn life into story, biographers must impose a logic beyond chronology, a pattern to make unreason rhyme.  They connect the dots on a timeline to create causal relationships designed to account for people’s behaviors and actions: because she couldn’t face her past, she couldn’t live with herself; because she lost her brother, she lost her trust in family; because he was in truth insecure, he became a make-believe gunslinger.  Without being supplied with at least a hint of what we call “motivation,” we reject stories as lacking in psychological depth and moral complexity.

Back when I gave my professor a piece of my mind—proffered, mind you, with a smile—I thought of the biographer’s determination to make sense of other people’s existences as sheer hubris.  Now, I am more inclined to look at biography as an act of desperation.  Nothing is more disconcerting, more silencing and disabling, than the blank we have to call potentiality in order to face or overwrite and deface it.  We cannot—will not—settle for zilch.

Secrets and duplicities, intimacy and detachment.  Like all family dramas worth relating to, Jon Robin Baitz’s stage play Other Desert Cities measures the distance between folks who are biologically—and often physically—closest to each other: the flesh, the blood and the closeted skeletons of kinfolk.

Approaching Palm Springs (and Other Desert Cities)

Baitz’s American stage family, the Wyeths, could hardly be more traditional: a mother and father, married to one another, a daughter and son, offspring of that union.  Then there is the dramatically expedient extension of that nucleus; in this case an alcoholic, don’t-give-a-damn aunt whom the audience looks at as a go-between, not only between characters but between those characters and ourselves.  It is a well calculated constellation, this, as Other Desert Cities does not just explore relationships but the act of relating, of putting that relationship and all those relations into words, and of questioning the words and the unspoken.

Though most of us couldn’t live with Aunt Silda (Judith Light, in the Booth Theatreproduction), we love her for what we are encouraged to read as her forthrightness and free spirit.  She, we assume, would be the person most likely to tell the true story of that family, as compromised as her memory and judgment might be after years of swilling the kind of spirits from which she is unable to free herself.

Hello SildaThe way I remember Palm Springs

After all, we cannot expect to get the inside dirt from her sister Polly (Stockard Channing), a staunch yet tarnished Republican who is terrified that her daughter Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel) has written a tell-all autobiography threatening to tear the façade right off the family’s sunny Californian home.

Yes, Silda tells it like it is.  Criticized by her class-conscious sister of wearing knock-offs, she barks back:

Honey.  News-flash: you’re not a Texan, you’re a Jew! We’re Jewish girls who lost their accents along the way, but for you that wasn’t enough, you had to become a goy, too.  Talk about the real thing? Talk about ‘faking it.’ Honey, this Pucci is a lot more real than your Pat Buckley schtick.

As it turns out, neither Silda nor Polly are what we are led to believe them to be; and this is Brooke’s lesson, too, as she tries to piece together the life story of her lost brother, a left-wing radical whose act of terrorism forced Nancy Reagan pal Polly and her ex-Hollywood star husband Lyman (Stacey Keach) into retirement in the desert.

Desperate to figure out who or what made her brother Henry what the facts don’t quite tell her he was, Brooke turns from writing fiction to biography.  Yet, in her attempt to expose the truth, she ends up with yet another version of the story rather than a definitive one.  “She presents us as ghouls who drove [Henry] to become sort of a murderer,” her anguished, disconsolate father protests to his son (Thomas Sadoski), the “ADD riddled, junk-food-addicted porn surfing Trip Wyeth,” as Brooke calls him to his face.

“Christ, there’s something so vicious about what you’re doing here, Brooke, don’t you know that?” Lyman exclaims.  Vicious and necessary, Other Desert Cities argues.  And futile? As suggested by the closing scene, which may strike some as perfunctory or incongruously sentimental, Brooke’s ordeal—and the ordeal to which she put her family—has served a purpose.

What may seem like a coda or anticlimax I took as the point of the Baitz’s drama.  As a biographer, Brooke has failed.  She has been taken in, taken story for life and secrecy for guilt only to become complicit in her family’s cover-up.  As an autobiographer, though, Brooke is to be envied.  She has learned something about herself that she didn’t know before she came to investigate the lives of those around her.  We may be unknowable to each other—but we can learn to know ourselves.

Of Two Minds: Can The Best Man Win?

Anyone who has as much respect and appreciation for the niceties of the English language as Gore Vidal has will realize, if perhaps only after the final curtain has fallen on The Best Man, that the title is not simply ironic but prognostic: the best man, whoever he may be, cannot be declared if the fight and choice is between just two candidates.  The ostensibly “better” one of them might win, but not, grammatically speaking, the “best.”  Now, the man whom Vidal favors—and expects the audience of his political comedy The Best Man to root for in the play’s fictional contest for Presidential nomination—is not just a man of his word, he is a man who uses each word properly.  The political banter is no mere wordplay: in The Best Man, grammar and morals are one.

Like any wit, Vidal’s central character, William Russell, takes language seriously.  He is not beyond lecturing and flinging the grammar at anyone who doesn’t play by the rules of that book, a volume that the upright man carries in his head.

Russell, proper right down to that noun, is proud to have the last name of a noted philosopher; and, as a thinker, it strikes him as morally wrong to allow others to put words in his mouth.  He would rather write his own speeches—“It’s a shameful business, speech by committee,” he declares—but has come to terms with the fact that his busy schedule dictates otherwise.  What he will not brook, though, is ungrammatical speech. “Please tell the writers again that the word ‘alternative’ is always singular.  There is only one alternative per situation.”
In the dramatic situation of The Best Man, “alternative” is clearly the wrong word, just as choosing the supposedly lesser evil is the wrong approach to casting votes.  Like the dilemma of the two-party system, the either-or decision to which the unquestioning responder is restricted calls for something better: the rejection of the supposed choice as spurious and misleadingly restrictive.
“May the best man win!” is the choice platitude of Russell’s opponent, Joseph Cantwell, whose last name, more than the name of Russell, suggests that the playwright cares less about his characters than about the philosophies for which he makes them stand and fall: they are metaphors for what politics can reduce us to when all we care about is making a name for ourselves.  Both Russell and Cantwell are stand-ins for the figures we imagine—hope and fear—politicians to be; beyond that, they aren’t at all.  “A candidate should not mean but be,” the literary playwright has Russell quip; as a character, Russell is not meant to be anything other than the mouthpiece Vidal means him to be in this verbal play of true versus nominal values.
Asked whether he thought that “a president ought to ignore what people want,” Russell replies “If the people want the wrong thing, [. . .] then I think a president should ignore their opinion and try to convince them that his way is the right way.”  How to do right and what is “right” are the questions The Best Man aims at encouraging us to ponder.  Russell answers by taking his opponent by his clichéd expression and extricating himself from the either-or bind that threatens to turn him into a man no better than Cantwell.
Vidal, too, attempts a way out here, a synthesis of satire and sentimentality, cynicism and hopefulness, as he demonstrates Russell to be the “best” man, after all, by proving him to be the better one.  The solution is as noble as it is grammatical—but it is rather too neat and ponderous, especially since the alternative “message” Vidal communicates is more tired than the dirty politics from which he derives a modicum of dramatic tension.
“And if I may bore you with one of my little sermons,” Russell and Vidal tell reporters and audiences early on:

Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics.  The important thing for any government is educating the people about issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.

Who, today, would buy that little nugget of shopworn sentiment?

Few, no doubt, even bother, as they are more likely to have come to sample the wares on display in the latest Broadway production at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.  The cast is headed by two sentimental favorites—Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones—whose presence, however lively, takes some of the bite out of the 1960 play, which now provokes nothing more effectively than nostalgia: a longing for politics that never were.  Like politics, the business of staging a show is too much of a “popularity contest” to rely on a playwright’s words to win us over.  Reading the script now without seeing the assembled personalities—Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, Eric McCormack—before me on that evening in May, I can better appreciate Vidal’s best lines—but, as a play, The Best Man remains ultimately unconvincing.

Sizing up his competition, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope once interrupted one of his narratives by attempting witty remarks about Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, labeling  the latter “Mr. Popular Sentiment” and the former “Dr. Pessimist Anticant.”  With his showdown between “Popular” Cantwell and “Anticant” Russell, Vidal demonstrates that wanting to be both satirical and sentimental means doing justice to neither; the sentiment feels calculated, the wit pointless. In the noble experiment of making dirty politics cleaner, everything comes out rather muddy in the wash.

Come On Up, Eileen; or, Wonderful Yorkville

A few weeks ago, my better half and I were up in Manchester, England, to do research for an upcoming exhibition.  While there, we had the good fortune of catching a production of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town starring Welsh girl gone West End Connie Fisher as Ruth.  Though not quite the real thing, this revival of a Broadway musical version of a play (turned movie, turned sitcom) based on a series of magazine stories inspired by the personal recollections of an Ohioan in Gotham did manage to evoke some of the magic and the madness of life in the titular burg.  And now that I’m back, the residential misadventures of Eileen and her sister come to mind each time I walk down Second Avenue in my old Upper East Side neighborhood.  Like the McKenney siblings, whose Greenwich Village basement flat was shaken by blasts heralding a subway line then under construction, folks up here in Yorkville have been dealing for years with the pre-math of just such a subterranean project: the noise, the dirt, the traffic jams, the shut down stores, the narrowed sidewalks, the fenced in pedestrian passageways that make you feel like a laboratory rat . . . and the rats themselves.


Yes, Second Avenue (pictured) is looking rather worse—and far less flashy—than it did when the street was lined not with gold, but with gals who may or may not have a ticker made of that precious metal; you know, ladies whose line, like the subway’s, is well below.  Wonderful Town is not without hints of darkness, but, as in many musicals of the 1940 and ’50s, the shadier urbanites are colorful caricatures rather than delicately shaded characters.  And if Wonderful is now not as well liked as it was when it premiered, this may be owing to the fact that, even though the characters are based on real people, the assembled Christopher Street portraits are cleaned up so thoroughly as to make them look like stock figures in a formulaic pastiche.  That said, the musical still offers a glimpse at life during the Great Depression and remains translatable—and relatable—to anyone who can read between all those half erased lines of none-of-your-business.

Not that I need to step out of my old apartment to get that sinking Ruth and Eileen feeling.  The two women struggled to find work and put up with a lot while waiting for a break, a wait that, in Eileen’s case, ended at the age of 26 in a fatal car crash.  Journalist Ruth McKenney immortalized her sister and saw—or made us see—the bright side of their hardship and the squalor down in their dingy, downstairs domicile.  Indeed, when I first caught up with My Sister Eileen, sitting in an Upper East Side park listening to a 1948 radio production starring Shirley Booth, I assumed it to be a comment in the post-Second World War housing crisis.  And it is this crisis that hits home today.

If ever I write another autobiography—the one I penned somewhat prematurely at age 14 was discarded once it had served its purpose of communicating my pubescent angst to the girls in my class, whom I knew it was pointless for me to pursue—I might take a lesson from Ruth and look on the proverbial if sometimes elusive silver lining when I reflect on this morning’s knock on the door.  An eviction notice was posted on it and my old apartment is once again contested territory.  I am writing this—while culture beckons unheeded—sitting at the shaky dinner table that, for many years, was stacked with books, student essays, and the drafts of my MA thesis and PhD dissertation.  No, this town would not feel half as wonderful to me if it weren’t for that table, this apartment, and for the friendship that made it possible—and indeed desirable—to come back for a visit, year after year . . .

Of Myrt and Marge-inal “interest”; or, Getting It in the “hinterland”

Amos ‘n’ Andy is old-fashioned,” radio critic Darwin L. Teilhet complained as early as 1932.  “Its dramatic machinery creaks.”  He much preferred Myrt and Marge, a 42nd Street-smart if way-off-Broadway Melody then in its inaugural season.  To Teilhet, Myrt and Marge was not only “very good serialized melodrama,” it was the “most advanced program of its type now on the air.”  For all its popularity—and its groundbreaking granddaddy-of-them-all status—Amos ‘n’ Andy sure was ‘old-fashioned.’  Indeed, its success depended on that comforting, reassuring recognizability—comforting and reassuring, that is, to folks who thought a black face routine less troubling than the effectuation of racial equality.  The early 1930s were highly competitive times of economic hardship, and to hear potential competitors bumbling and make fools of themselves must have been comic relief to the paler faces in the crowd, the faces that mattered most to sponsors.
So, how fresh-faced were Myrt and Marge by comparison? And why was it that, by January 1933, their serialized adventures came pretty close to rivaling Amos ‘n’ Andy in the ratings? Never having been enthusiastic about the latter, I was eager to find out.

As next to nothing is left of the program’s initial run, I had to take the critics’ ear and word for the “it” of listening.  Teilhet, for one, was wowed by the “swift lines,” which he found to be “very different from Amos’ and Andy’s ponderous exchanges.”
Indeed, those “swift lines” translated into swell curves in the critic’s mind.  “Miss [Donna] Damerel [as Marge] provides a sweet and pure sex interest,” Teilhet opined, “which can be safely gulped down by the hinterland without making the children go to bed before their proper hour.”  It took an adult’s imagination of adulterated purity to figure that not all that occurred in the lives of chorines Myrt and Marge was altogether “sweet and pure,” least of all by the puritan standards commercial radio was obliged to uphold.
According to Teilhet, the “tempo” set by the two leads was “hard and glittering.”  Myrt and Marge was quick to respond to the public’s fascination with Al Capone and Little Caesar by turning the backstage drama into an “exciting gangster story.”  It brought a touch of Dillinger to the dilly-dalliance of romantic serials, then still a genre in search of a formula.  By doing so, and by implicating its leads, Myrt and Marge came as close to pre-code Hollywood as network radio could get.
What’s more, Teilhet remarked, that “tempo” was “directly traceable to the vaudeville antecedents” of Myrtle Vail, who created the serial, wrote and starred in it.  “The things she has seen—and experienced,” winked Radio Guide’s Arthur Kent in 1934.  Kent attributed the program’s success to the fact that the title characters were played by actresses who were mother and daughter in real life and that Myrtle Vail had “lived in three great epochs of show business: epochs dominated, respectively, by stage, movies and radio.”  Having “been though it all,” Vail now wrote “the life of the theater as well as her own life into her script.”   Like a true trouper, she carried on even after the death of her co-starring daughter in 1941.
At least on one occasion, the realism was inspired by actual events.  “That tearful episode of Myrt and Marge last week was not the result of an emotionally successful script, m’dears,” readers of Radio Guide’s issue for the week ending 1 February 1936 were told.  “No, it was because the cast almost was overcome by tear gas fumes released when the bank adjoining the CBS studios tested out its automatic vault system.”  I am surprised that listeners, if not overcome by the vapors, weren’t positively fuming at some of the backstage goings-on.  Perhaps they were overcome, which may account for the lack of documented complaints, radio’s chief tool of self-censoring.  Could they have been oblivious of the program’s other or third “sex interest”—that flaming figure in the dressing room?
What Myrt and Marge brought into American homes, if they didn’t already have one in the closet—and what contributed to renewed interest in the serial, albeit as a mere pop-cultural footnote—was Clarence Tiffingtuffer, the queer sidekick responsible for the gowns worn by the show-busy leads, and for considerable gossip besides.
If listeners were clueless, the hoofers sure weren’t.  When teenager Marge, the newest member of Hayfield Pleasures celebrated precision chorus, feels uncomfortable about being fitted by a man, one of her fellow chorines hisses “Don’t worry, he’ll never harm a hair o’ your head, dearie.”  Rather than being the brunt of it, Clarence dishes out some “swift lines” of his own. “Those gams of yours are practically parenthetical,” he remarks upon the alleged assets in his sartorial care.
Now, belated followers of Myrt and Marge have to make do with a mid-to-late 1940s revival of the serial (although a 1933 film version featuring the radio cast is extant).  Gone are the true-to-life leads; gone, too, is much of what had seemed “different” or “advanced” about the serial back in 1932.  Yet even though we now have to settle for Myrt and Marge-arine, the substitute still retains a flavor of the first outing, as the actor originating the part of Clarence, Ray Hedge, reprises the role he made his own.
I can imagine that, had I been growing up in the early 1930s, Myrt and Marge would have made me feel a little less marginal by moving someone recognizably like me—yet way out there, enjoying a career and a life of make-believe—into the center of the action.  How thrilling it would have been to hear Myrt and Marge take to the soundstage set by their better-known seniors, Gosden and Correll, and listen to them tear down that old minstrel show-on-taxi cab wheels.  With Clarence in their midst, and on my mind, it sure would have sounded like the “most advanced program of its type.”
To be continued, as they say in soap opera land.

Blind Man’s Stuff: Alec Templeton in Time and Space

Last night, I had the good fortune to hear the music of Alec Templeton. Live and by proxy—and right here in town. Templeton’s compositions, among them barrier-obliterating and class-unconscious numbers like “Bach Goes to Town” and “Debussy in Dubuque,” were performed at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. Pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips was ably assisted by Templeton himself, whose voice and ways on the keyboard were heard in a variety of radio recordings from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Why here? Why now? Well, Templeton was a Welshman by birth, a fact that seems to have eluded most of the Welsh who pride themselves to be a nation of song. So, last night was as good and as high a time as any for his countrymen and women to acknowledge Templeton’s remarkable against-almost-all-odds career, even if the will to embark upon it took the composer-pianist as far West from the West of Britain as Hollywood. The countrywoman who did the acknowledging was Rhian Davies, teller of Templeton’s life in words and images. Davies, who generously acknowledged as well all the support and assistance her project received from broadcasting buffs and music lovers around the inter-networked world, has known about Templeton practically all her life. Eager to share her readily transmitted enthusiasm, she brought home to us, the assembled audience, that it is always Alec Templeton Time.

Templeton’s life is the stuff of legend. Born blind, he developed an ear so keen and a wit so sharp that he was destined to play tunes made for the cutting of rugs. That he was an expert at middlebrow musical culture has a lot to do with the fact that the eyes beneath his brows saw nothing and that his ears saw nothing but potential. Others, left in the dark yet accustomed to light, might have seen an insurmountable impediment.

The mind’s eye of Alec Templeton saw no such manifestations of doubt. He saw, say, Lower Basin Street . . . and took it. It may be that sightless people, who sense space by feeling their way around and listening intently, are not so much impressed by the walls facing them as their seeing contemporaries, not so much concerned with apparent boundaries, be they cultural or national.

“I understand,” a writer for Radio Guide remarked in 1936, “why his friends, when you start glooming about his sightless eyes, smile superciliously and say: ‘Save your sympathy for someone who needs it.’”

The stuff sighted folks concern themselves with is so much nonsense to a man like Templeton. Sensing a universe where others might imagine chaos, he crossed the waves and made a home for himself on the airwaves, authoring an etherized existence.

“Radio,” Templeton reportedly said, “is to me the greatest miracle of man’s ingenuity. My ears are my eyes, and I tune in at every opportunity, listening to everything from Vic and Sade to Toscanini.”

Hearing Templeton’s music performed live and seeing his career celebrated was a thrill. Yet as pleased as I was that all this happened in the little Welsh town where I now live, I wonder what claim Wales has to her native son. After all, the place of his birth, like his blindness, was not of his choosing. Indeed, he chose to unfurl his pinions, take to the air, and come to live for all willing to be all ears, in a medium whose art is not limited by space but that is instead the stuff—the no-matter—of time.  Make that Alec Templeton Time.

Face Value?

Time to mingle with the visitors, to watch them stand back, take in the artwork—and read those captions. During the past few months, I have been involved in putting together an art exhibition at the local university. It all started last October. I was given the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course in writing informative and interpretive texts for museums: labels, text panels, promotional material. The class was designed as a workshop. So, rather than just theorizing about such matters as readability and legibility or analyzing prose styles and target audiences, my students and I were faced with the challenge of curating a show. That show, Face Value, is on display and open to the public until 30 March 2012 at the School of Art, Aberystwyth.  It features works on paper (watercolors, etchings, drawings) by artists as diverse as cover girl Gertrude Hermes, Edward Burne-Jones, Fernand Léger, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Simeon Solomon, William Strang, Stuart Pearson Wright, and Keith Vaughan.  Here is the introductory panel greeting guests at the private view tonight:

‘It is only at the first encounter that a face makes its full impression on us,’ the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once remarked. Face Value encourages such chance encounters.  Many of these works on paper from the School of Art collection are presented here for the first time.  Most have never been shown side by side.

This themed exhibition explores various acts of reading: our interpretation of facial features, our attempts to work out the relationships between appearances and mental or emotional states, between character and physical characteristics, as well as between artist, sitter and ourselves.

In 1868, Charles Darwin conducted an experiment to demonstrate that humans have a universal set of facial expressions. An anatomist stimulated a subject’s facial muscles with electrodes to elicit expressions of anxiety, sadness, and joy. He then took a series of photographs with which Darwin presented guests at a dinner party, inviting them to guess the subject’s emotional state. Are our responses predictable? Are faces quite this easy to read?

Face Value is itself the product of an experiment. It was conceived in a classroom, in workshops designed to debate or refute the value of interpretive texts written for museums. Do we look at and judge a self-portrait of a named artist as we do an anonymous, faceless study of a head? Does knowledge about artist or sitter influence our appreciation? What is the curator’s role in aiding or informing our ‘encounter’ with works of art?

‘Who sees the human face correctly,’ Picasso asked, ‘the photographer, the mirror, or the painter?’ Our various guides to interpretation are meant to suggest that there is no ‘correct’ reading and that works of art cannot be taken at face value.

At face value, this is just another art exhibition; but many of the texts on the wall would not read or sound the way they do had I not learned from listening to and reading about radio how to keep sentences simple, short and clear.  It is a lesson I am still learning … and worth learning it is.  Especially for curators.

You Can’t Take It With You; or, I Scan, Therefore I Am

I call them inventory days, those first few weeks of a new calendar year. It is a time when I play secretary to myself, when I organize and catalogue, shelve and throw away, when I look back at the places I’ve been to, the things I have done, the people I have met. Perhaps, I am getting it all wrong: the year is crisp—so, why am I rehashing what has been, obsessively reconstructing the past with the aid of notes in my calendar, correspondences, receipts and ticket stubs? I am not attached to the material evidence of my prior whereabouts and activities, mind. I jot down what I can glean from each scrap of paper and discard it posthaste. The records are gone, but my recordings of them remain. Such nonchalance is the prerogative of a diarist: not to feel obliged to prove—let alone account for—his or her existence to anyone else. I recount events in order to make them count rather than become accountable for them . . .

You can’t take it with you—but does that mean I should dispose of whatever I have consumed? I am not quite so indifferent when it comes to artifacts that, unlike my mind and body’s scant body of work, might be of consequence to posterity. I feel free to dispose of a photograph of myself after I scan it; but I am uneasy about doing the same to a piece of ephemera such as this souvenir program (from my collection of motion picture memorabilia). May the copy be a feast for greedy eyes as long as the original is removed from greasy fingers.

Sure, I enjoy surrounding myself with meaningful objects; but, my childhood teddy bear excepting, I am not attached to belongings. To have is utility; to hold, futility.

The chance of having and not holding is what attracted me to the immaterial world of radio dramatics. These days, I mostly collect what goes into one ear and, playing with it, delay the moment at which it comes out of the other. I amass what has no mass: digital recordings, not the physical vehicles on which they used to be stored (shellac, vinyl, magnetic tape).

Everything I have gathered is at my fingertips, nothing is filed away. My world and my vault are one. The files are backed up (this much I have learned from past losses)—but they are ready to go wherever I am. I can take it all with me; and doing so rather than storing things away enriches my life.

That said, I have to learn to cut short my inventory days; last year, they lasted for months. To cut a long time in storage short, I have booked a trip to New York this January. No doubt I will be both gathering new stuff for living and, as my past record tells me, look back and catch up. I know my failings. No saints need apply to preserve me.