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The most recent item to enter my collection of ephemera is a somewhat tattered, unpublished radio script (pictured above).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

Recycling Questions: Just What Is or Ain’t an Adaptation?

As a product of postmodern culture, I lay no claim to originality.  Indeed, I have always been thoroughly unoriginal, and, occasional anxieties of influence notwithstanding, often gleefully so.  As a child, I ripped off comics, tore apart magazines and took whatever images were available to create collages and parodies.  Using an audio tape recorder, I appropriated television programs by inserting my voice into mass-marketed narratives, transforming a saccharine anime like Heidi (1974) into a subversive adolescent fantasy.

My postmodern past (note my de Chirico take on a mass-produced vase)

No evidence of my early experiments is extant today; but adaptation became an enduring fascination and a field of study.  As a student, I wrote essays on adaptations of Frankenstein and on Brecht’s revisitations of Galileo Galilei – Leben des Galilei (1938/39 and 1955), as well as Galileo (1947).  I produced an MA thesis on translation (“Meister Remastered”) and a PhD dissertation on the relationship between stage, screen, print and radio (“Etherized Victorians”).  The latter I recycled as Immaterial Culture, published in 2013.

Now a lecturer in art history, I have repurposed some of the above and pieced together a Frankenstein’s creature of an undergraduate module I call Adaptation: Versions, Revisions and Cultural Renewal.  In a series of lectures and seminars, the course (at Aberystwyth University) investigates the processes involved in translative practices that range from the reworking of a literary classic into a graphic novel to drawing a moustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa.  It explores relationships between form and content, genre and mode, integrity and hybridity, durability and transience, culture and commerce, as well as art and the environment.

As I state in the syllabus, many products of culture endure by shifting shape: stories are turned into sculptures, plays are reimagined as dramatic canvases and mass-produced ephemera are recycled for art. What survives such transformations? What is lost or gained in translation? What are the connections between – and interdependencies of – so-called originals and the works that keep coming after them?

Given the monstrous scope of the course, another question emerges: Just what is not an adaptation? It is a question that becomes more complex if tackled by anyone who, like me, regards originality as a myth.

Much of what is published on the subject is limited to matters of narrative, of what happens when telling becomes showing, or vice versa.  Linda Hutcheon’s study A Theory of Adaptation opens promisingly – if somewhat patronizingly – with the following statement: “If you think adaptation can be understood by using novels and films alone, you’re wrong.  The Victorians had a habit of adapting just about everything…. We postmoderns have clearly inherited this same habit….”

Hutcheon does not quite deliver on her promise of inclusivity.  Unable or unwilling to break the “habit” of adaptation scholars who came before her, Hutcheon’s study also concentrates on “novels and films,” the word “film” appearing on 229 pages, compared to, say, “painting” on 17 pages, including index and bibliography.   There is no mention at all of collage or assemblage.  Left out are the projects of Dada, Neo-Dada and Pop, as well as the debates about Kitsch, Camp and Pastiche that were central to Postmodernism.

Hutcheon’s definition of “adaptation” is at once too broad and too narrow.  Her brief statements on “What Is Not an Adaptation?” are welcome yet imprecise and contradictory.  What is worse, her definition is at times arbitrary.   She states, for instance, that “fan fiction” is not a form of adaptation, offering no explanation for its exclusion.

I agree with Hutcheon that adaptations need to be readable as a version, an acknowledged take on or taking of something we perceive as same yet different.  Adaptations are not copies, and, as spurious as they may sometimes strike us, they are not fakes, either.

Hutcheon distinguishes between parody and adaptation, claiming that the former does not need to be acknowledged.  If unacknowledged, parodies – or any other form of adaptation – cannot operate qua adaptation.  They are like irony in that respect.  You just can’t be ironic all by yourself.  Any dance of the index fingers needs an audience.

As I see it, adaptations, be they parodies or pastiche, anarchic or reverent, have to exist as concrete products – rather than ideas or themes – that are distinct from yet related to other products with which they engage or from which they openly borrow in more or less creative acts of transformation.

Am I an adaptation?

Hutcheon, who does not insist on a change in medium as a criterion for adaptation, cites a source that identifies as a “new entertainment norm” the “process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”  The resulting products are not meant to exist independently but serve as a deliberate fragmentation for the sake of maximizing market potential and profits by increasing the potential audience.  Is this still adaptation? Perhaps, if the audience rejects to buy the lot.

Buying the lot is something I rarely do.  I pick and choose, take apart and transform according to my own desires and limitations.  And pick apart I must when I read Hutcheon’s comments on radio drama as a form of “showing” like “all performance media,” at which point her study recommends itself for recycling as pulp.  Anyone who appreciates the hybridity of radio plays would balk at such simplifications.

Trying to make a case for elevating their cultural status, Hutcheon asks: “If adaptations are … such inferior and secondary creations why then are they so omnipresent in our culture and, indeed increasing steadily in number?” Well, junk food is “omnipresent” – and so are feebly argued studies – which does not make either any less “inferior.”  Besides, the question is not whether adaptations are good, bad or indifferent.  The question is: what are and what ain’t they?

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

One Tough Act One to Follow

Theater ought to make for good theater.  Noises OffA Chorus of Disapproval.  Stuff like that.  Sometimes, though, it doesn’t.  And it doesn’t because it doesn’t quite become stuff.  And when it ain’t stuff, it fails to matter.  The Lincoln Center production of Act One drives that home.  And what a slow drive it is.  You just sit there, or I did, thinking: when will it stop? Incredulous, I kept checking my watch to see whether time had stood still and I was stuck in the mind of a playwright who hadn’t quite stopped revising, who hadn’t quite figured out just where to go and how to end.  And the end, when it came at last, couldn’t have been less of one.  You could have spelled it out in six letters.  THE END.  It’d be quicker that way. But that doesn’t make an ending feel like any conclusion to draw from.
Granted, the question of how and where to finish is always a tough one when it comes to autobiography, a life unfolding and not wrapped up retrospectively. If only Moss Hart had done the adapting of his 1959 autobiography, the play might have had, if not necessarily a structure but at least an urgency, a currency that this nostalgic exercise in pointlessness woefully lacks.  Instead, we end up with an adaptation that, in its second act, is mostly about the act of adapting.

That’s just the problem with the second half of James Lapine’s reworking of Hart’s book.  It tells – rather than compellingly dramatizes – the story of how Hart and Kaufman collaborated on Once in a Lifetime (1930).  Watching two guys sitting around drafting a play isn’t nearly as riveting as experiencing that play or the evolution of it.  And, to me, at least, it didn’t help matters that, several years ago, I saw a lifeless National Theatre production of Once in a Lifetime, starring David Suchet.  What should have been sheer madcap felt drowsily close to one nightcap too many.

“The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection,” Hart wrote.  It’s a line from Act One, the book, that makes it into Act One, the play, and it makes you aware how little blood there is in the latter.  It is altogether too glossy to make us believe in the curative potency of make-believe, felt by someone brought up in “unrelieved poverty,” as Hart put it.  Such urgency could turn theater-crazy Aunt Kate, charmingly though she is played by Andrea Martin, into someone akin to Blanche DuBois.

If the play, in this production, at least, isn’t quite a cure for drama dependency, that may be because it isn’t sufficiently catching to be an antidote to theater madness.  It has a cuteness about it that is merely subcutaneous.  It doesn’t prick you, or hook you, or infuse you with the passion of which it can only speak in borrowed words.

Once Upon a Time in Radioland: A Kind of Ruritanian Romance

The other day, at my favorite bookstore here in Aberystwyth, I was caught in the eye by what struck me as a highly unusual cover for a 1938 edition of Anthony Hope’s fanciful pageturner The Prisoner of Zenda. Mind you, I’m not likely to turns those pages any time soon. I’m not one for Graustarkian excursions. That I found the old chestnut so arresting is due to the way in which it was sold anew to an audience of Britons to whom such a mode of escape from the crisis-ridden everyday must have been sufficiently attractive already. This was the 92nd impression of Zenda; and, with Europe at the brink of war, Ruritania must have sounded to those who prefer to face the future with their head in the hourglass contents of yesteryear like a travel deal too hard to resist.

Now, the publishers, Arrowsmith, weren’t taking any chances.  Judging by the cover telling as much, they were looking for novel ways of repackaging a familiar volume that few British public and private libraries could have been wanting at the time.

Cinegram No. 4, from my collection
British moviegoers had just seen Ruritania appear before their very eyes in the 1937 screen version of the romance, which make dashing Ronald Colman an obvious salesperson and accounts for his presence on the dust jacket.  It is the line underneath, though, that made me look: “The Book of the Radio Broadcast,” the advertising slogan reads.  Desperate, anachronistic, and now altogether unthinkable, these words reminded me just how far removed we are from those olden days when radio ruled the waves.
The Prisoner of Zendawas recently the subject of a highly successful film,” the copy on the inside states somewhat pointlessly in the face of the faces on the cover.  What’s more, it continues, a “further mark of its popularity” was the story’s “selection by the BBC as a radio serial broadcast on the National Programme.”  To this day, the BBC produces and airs a great number of serial adaptations of classic, popular or just plain old literature; but, however reassuring this continuation of a once prominent storytelling tradition may be, a reminder of the fact that books are still turned into sound-only dramas would hardly sell copies these days.  Radio still sells merchandise—but a line along the lines of “as heard on radio” is pretty much unheard of in advertising these days.
“This book is the original story on which the broadcast was based,” the dust jacket blurb concludes.  I, for one, would have been more thrilled to get my hands or ears on the adaptation, considering that all we have left of much of the BBC’s output of aural drama is such ocular proof of radio’s diminished status and pop-cultural clout.
Perhaps, my enthusiasm at this find was too much tempered with the frustration and regret such a nostalgic tease provokes.  At any rate, I very nearly left Ystwyth Books without the volume in my hands. That I walked off with it after all is owing to our friend, novelist Lynda Waterhouse, who saw me giving it the eye and made me a handsome present of it.  And there it sits now on my bookshelf, a tattered metaphor of my existence: I am stuck in a past that was never mine to outlive, grasping at second-hand-me-downs, gasping for recycled air . . . a prisoner of a Zenda of my own unmaking.

Double Hedda: Friel, Ibsen, and the Business of Giving It One’s Best Shot

“I don’t think he’s written a line that’s unnecessary,” Adrian Scarborough remarked about Henrik Ibsen during rehearsals for the latest production of Hedda Gabler at London’s Old Vic, in which Scarborough plays the part of Hedda’s husband.  The endorsement is peculiarly out of place, considering that the Old Vic’s Hedda hardly distinguishes itself by—or even strives for—a line-by-line fidelity to Ibsen’s original.  Rather than a rewording of previous translations, Brian Friel’s “new version” puts a few new words into the mouths of the old, familiar characters created by his fellow playwright, adding a line here and there that left me questioning their necessity.

Now, few theatergoers around the world are in a position to compare Ibsen’s Norwegian to the translation in which they hear those lines performed; and whether a character (in this case Hedda) says “But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new” or “New surroundings take a little getting used to” seems to make little difference.  Are such substitutions worth the bother? What’s more, are they worthy of a playwright like Friel?

“But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new.”  That line can be found in the American-English translation by Rolf Fjelde, who, in an effort of doing “the very best [a translator] can do,” kept “a conscience-file of revision” in hopes of getting the opportunity “Finally [to] Get It Right.”  Fjelde got that chance—and the result seems not particularly in need of further emendation.  Playwright Friel, though, is not about to offer his services as a mute transcriber whose job is to interpret without drawing attention to the interpreter and the challenges or impossibilities of arriving at any one definitive text in a given or taken language.  Friel does not claim his English version to be the last word—and, rather than having us take his word for it being faithful, wants to have a word with us about it.

To do so, Friel inserts hints of himself into the action, which, aside from Hedda’s quest to destroy, quite literally, the text of patriarchy, involves the contest between two published writers, both western and male.  Most overtly, he does this by taking liberties with the lines spoken by the middle-aged Judge Brack who, in Friel’s version, confounds his listeners with Americanisms like “making whoopee” and provides a running commentary on the currency and lifespan of written and spoken language.  “Philadelphia, there you go!” Friel seems to say to Fjelde, suggesting that Broadway and the West End may well require or at least warrant alternate versions of Ibsen and arguing that neither variant of English can or should be considered transcontinental, let alone universal.

Unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us that we are in Norway, having characters drop names of places or remarking on the quality of “Norwegian air.”  Yet, also unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us, by foregrounding the novelty or datedness of words and debating their suitability, that we are not in any particular, definitive place at all but that we are instead in the contested, dangerous territory of language.  It is a territory that Hedda seems to control for a while with her probing questions and scathing remarks but that nonetheless delimits and ultimately overmasters her.

As scholar Anthony Roche puts it, Friel demonstrates himself to be “concerned with updating the constantly changing English language that will always require new adaptations of Ibsen, while making subtle additions that perhaps deepen our understanding of the rich emotional lives of the characters.”  Friel’s Hedda is almost as much about Ibsen’s characters as it is about the act of reading them … and of interpreting Ibsen.  It is a self-conscious take on the act of taking on a classic that, in its reflexivity borders on the by now rather tiresomely postmodern.  Give it your best shot, translator, I felt like responding, and let Hedda get her gun and do the rest.

That Hedda couldn’t quite do her job—and that Friel hadn’t quite done his—became apparent from the laughter in the audience even as Hedda was about to do away with herself in the ingenious glass coffin the Old Vic production had prepared for that purpose.  “This is my first Ibsen,” commented actress Fenella Woolgar (who took on the part of Thea Elvsted), “and I’m discovering that he is a lot funnier than I anticipated.”  Perhaps, that’s because this ain’t quite Ibsen and because Friel isn’t quite the Ibsen-minded processor anyone expecting a traditional Hedda interpretation is likely to expect.

“Translation,” as I said elsewhere (in an essay on the subject) is too mild a word to capture the violent process whereby a text written in one language and time is taken apart and rebuilt in another.  Hedda is a violent play; but given that I find myself preoccupied with the making of this Hedda rather than with the unmaking of its nominally central character, I wonder whether Friel has not inflicted some harm, necessary or otherwise, on Hedda and Hedda alike …

Ladykillers Instinct; or, Marcia Warren’s Profession

“What’s your great online discovery,” an interviewer asked Marcia Warren, star of the current West End production of Ladykillers.  To this, the veteran of stage, screen and radio replied, “What does online mean?” It is just the kind of answer most of us expect—and want to hear—from someone past middle age, which makes hers such a sly response.  Warren remains in character, as Mrs. Wilberforce, kindly old landlady to the killers, giving us what we find so reassuring and endearing about the senescence we otherwise dread.  She may or may not be joking—but she sure has earned the right neither to know nor to care.  Looked at it that way, being past it becomes a shelter, a retreat beyond trends, updates and upgrades whose seeming simplicity appeals to those who cannot afford to be quite so nonchalant about technology, who feel the pressure of performing in and conforming to the construct of the present as a digital age.  Not to know or willfully to ignore—what luxury! Young and not-so-young alike find comfort in this deflecting mirror image of our future selves.  It’s a Betty White lie we use to kid ourselves .

We enjoy making light of old age; and those of us who have half a conscience enjoy it even more to be presented with elderly people or characters who are not simply the brunt of yet another ageist joke but are in on it—and cashing in on it as well.  We laugh all the way as they take our laughter to the bank.

We want older folks to be feisty because it comforts us to know that, even in our declining years, there are weapons left with which to fight, however futile the fighting.  The middle aged, by comparison, are past the prime against which the standard their looks and performances are measured; it is their struggle to conceal or deny this obsolescence that makes them the stuff of deflationary humor.  We don’t laugh at Mrs. Wilberforce; we laugh at the bumbling crooks whose willfulness is no match for her force shield of insuperable antiquity.

It is this nod to nostalgia as a weapon against the onslaught of modernity that makes Ladykillers such a charmer of a story.  And what makes it work on the stage just as it works on the screen is that the 1955 original requires no update: the Ladykillers was born nostalgic.  It hit the screens—in fabulous Technicolor, no less—at a time when, after years of postwar austerity, the British were ready to look back in amusement at their wants and desires and all those surreptitious attempts to meet them.  Sneers turned to smiles again as greed was finally being catered to once more.

Eluding those who try to will it by force, fortune winks at those who wait like Mrs. Wilberforce, a senior citizen yet hale, clearheaded and driven enough to enjoy a sudden windfall.  It is a conservative fantasy that appealed then as it appeals now, especially to middleclass, middle-aged theatergoers eager to distract themselves from banking woes and pension fears, from cybercrime and urban riots.

Familiar to me from radio dramatics, Warren’s name was the only one on the marquee I recognized as I decided whether or not take in what I assumed to be another one of those makeshift theatricals that too often take the place of real theater these days—stage adaptations of popular movies, books and cartoons like Shrek, Spider-Man, or Addams Family with which the theater world is trying rather desperately to augment its aging audience base. Written by Graham Linehan and directed by Sean Foley, this new production of The Ladykillers fully justified its staging.  There is much for the eye to take in; indeed, it owing to an able cast—and the lovely, lively Ms. Warren above all— to prevent the ingenious set and special effects from stealing this caper.

In the real, honest-to-goodness make-believe beyond the online trappings of which she claims to be ignorant, Warren gives us just what we want.  After all, acting for our pleasure and acting out our desires is her business.  It’s the oldest profession in the world.

Time and the Airwaves: Notes on a Priestley Season

Both BBC Radio 4 and 7 are in the thick of a J. B. Priestley festival, a spate of programs ranging from serial dramatizations of early novels (The Good Companions and Bright Day) and adaptations of key plays (Time and the Conways and An Inspector Calls), to readings from his travelogue English Journey and a documentary about the writer’s troubled radio days. Now, I don’t know just what might be the occasion for such a retrospective, since nothing on the calendar coincides with the dates of Priestley’s birth or death. Perhaps, it is the connection with the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk, an event on which Priestley embroidered in June 1941 for one of his Postscript broadcasts, that recalled him to the minds of those in charge of BBC radio programming.

Never mind the wherefores and whys. Any chance of catching up with Priestley is welcome, especially when the invitation is extended by way of the wireless, the means and medium by which his voice and words reached vast audiences during the 1930s and early 1940s, both in the United Kingdom and the United States.

For all his experience as a broadcaster, though, Priestley, who was not so highbrow as to high-hat the mass market of motion pictures, never explored radio as a playwright’s medium, as a potential everyman’s theater on whose boards to try his combined radiogenic skills of novelist, dramatist, and essayist for the purpose of constructing the kind of aural plays that are radio’s most significant contribution to twentieth-century literature—the plays of ideas.

Priestley prominently installed a wireless set in Dangerous Corner, a stage thriller whose characters gather to listen to a thriller broadcast. Later, he read his controversial wartime commentaries (titled Postscripts) to a vast radio audience. He even went on one of Rudy Vallee’s variety programs to discuss the fourth dimension. Yet the medium that relied entirely on that dimension, to the contemplation of which he devoted many of his stage plays—Time and the Conways and I Have Been Here Before among them—did not intrigue Priestley to make time and create plays especially for the air.

To be sure, his falling out with the BBC in 1941 (as outlined in Martin Wainwright’s radio documentary about the Postscript broadcasts) did little to foster Priestley’s appreciation of the radiodramatic arts. Yet the indifference is apparent long before his relationship with Auntie soured. When interviewed for the 1 September 1939 issue of the Radio Times about his novel Let the People Sing, which was to be read serially on the BBC before it appeared in print, Priestley dismissed the idea that he had written it with broadcasting in mind:

I realised, of course, that the theme must appeal to the big majority. But apart from that, I thought it better to let myself go and leave the BBC to make it into twelve radio episodes. It would otherwise have cramped my style.

To Priestley, the “experiment” of broadcasting his novel lay in the marketing “gamble” of making it publicly available prior to publication, a challenge of turning publishing conventions upside down by effectively turning the printed book into a sort of postscript. Clearly, he looked upon radio a means of distribution rather than a medium of artistic expression.

Reading I Have Been Here Before and listening to the radio adaptation of Time and the Conways, I realized now little either is suited to the time art of aural play. Whereas the Hörspiel or audio play invites the utter disregard for the dramatic unities of time and space, Priestley relied on the latter to make time visible or apparent for us on the stage.

The Conways, like the characters of Dangerous Corner before them, are brought before us in two temporal versions, a contrast designed to explore how destinies depend on single moments in time—moments in which an utterance or an action brings about change—and how such moments might be recaptured or rewritten to prevent time from being, in Hamlet’s words, “out of joint.”

“Time’s only a dream,” Alan Conway insists. “Time doesn’t destroy anything. It merely moves us on—in this life—from one peep-hole to the next.” Our past selves are “real and existing. We’re seeing another bit of the view—a bad bit, if you like—but the whole landscape’s still there.”

In Priestley’s plays, it is the scenery, the landscape of stagecraft, that remains there, “whole” and virtually unchanged. The unity of space is adhered to so as to show up changes in attitudes and relationships and to maintain cohesion in the absence or disruption of continuity. In radio’s lyrical time plays, by comparison, neither time nor place need be of any moment. It is the moment alone that matters on the air, an urgency that Priestley, the essayist and wartime commentator, must surely have sensed. Priestley, the novelist and playwright did or could not. Too few ever did. To this day, a whole aural landscape is biding its time . . .

"Mike," for the Love of It

“What is there to say about what one loves except: I love it, and to keep on saying it?” Roland Barthes famously remarked. Sometimes, getting to the stage of saying even that much requires quite a bit of effort; and sometimes you don’t get to say it at all. Love may be where you find it, but it may also be the very act of discovery. The objective rather than the object. The pursuit whose outcome is uncertain. Methodical, systematic, diligent. Sure, research, if it is to bear fruit, should be all that. And yet, it is also a labor of love. It can be ill timed and unappreciated. If nothing comes of it, you might call it unrequited. It may be all-consuming, impolitic and quixotic. Still, it’s a quest. It’s passion, for the love of Mike!

“Mike” has been given me a tough time. It all began as a wildly improbable romance acted out by my favorite leading lady. It was nearly a decade ago, in the late spring of 2001, that I first encountered the name. “Mike” is a reference in the opening credits of the film Torch Singer, a 1933 melodrama starring Claudette Colbert. Having long been an admirer of Ms. Colbert—who, incidentally made her screen debut in the 1927 comedy For the Love of Mike, a silent film now lost—I was anxious to catch up with another one of her lesser-known efforts when it was screened at New York City’s Film Forum, an art house cinema I love for its retrospectives of classic—and not quite so classic—Hollywood fare.

Until its release on DVD in 2009, Alexander Hall’s Torch Singer was pretty much a forgotten film, one of those fascinatingly irregular products of the Pre-Code era, films that strike us, in the Code-mindedness with which we are conditioned to approach old movies, as being about as incongruous, discomfiting and politically incorrect as a blackface routine at a Nelson Mandela tribute or a pecan pie eating contest at a Weight Watchers meeting. Many of these talkies, shot between 1929 and 1934, survive only in heavily censored copies, at times re-cut and refitted with what we now understand to be traditional Hollywood endings.

Torch Singer, which tells the Depression era story of a fallen woman who takes over a children’s program and, through it, reestablishes contact with the illegitimate daughter she could not support without falling, has, apart from its scandalous subject matter, such an irresistible radio angle that I was anxious to discuss it in Etherized Victorians, the dissertation on American radio drama I was then in the process of researching.

Intent on presenting radio drama as a literary rather than historical or pop-cultural subject, I was particularly interested in published scripts, articles by noted writers with a past in broadcasting, and fictions documenting the central role the “Enormous Radio” played in American culture during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. I thought about dedicating a chapter of my study to stories in which studios serve as settings, microphones feature as characters, and broadcasts are integral to the plot.

Torch Singer is just such a story—and, as the opening credits told me, one with a past in print. Written by Lenore Coffee and Lynn Starling, the screenplay is based on the story “Mike” by Grace Perkins; but that was all I had to go on when I began my search. No publisher, no date, no clues at all about the print source in which “Mike” first came before the public.


Little could be gleaned from Perkins’s New York Times obituary—somewhat overshadowed by the announcement of the death of Enrico Caruso’s wife Dorothy—other than that she died not long after assisting Madame Chiang Kai-shek in writing The Sure Victory (1955); that she had married Fulton Oursler, senior editor of Reader’s Digest and author of the radio serial The Greatest Story Ever Told; and that she had penned a number of novels published serially in popular magazines of the 1930s. That sure complicated matters as I went on to turn the yellowed pages of many once popular journals of the period in hopes of coming across the elusive “Mike.”

Finally, years after my degree was in the bag—and what a deep receptacle that turned out to be—I found “Mike” between the pages of the 20 May 1933 issue of Liberty; or the better half of “Mike,” at least, as this is a serialized narrative. Never mind; I am not that interested anyway in the story’s other Mike, the man who deserted our heroine and with whom she is reunited in the end. At last, I got my hands on this “Revealing Story of a Radio Star’s Romance,” the story of the “notorious Mimi Benton,” a hard-drinking mantrap who’d likely “end up in the gutter,” but went on the air instead—and “right into your homes! Yes, sir, and talked to your children time and time again!”

“Mike,” like Torch Singer, is a fiction that speaks to Depression-weary Americans who, dependent on handouts, bereft of status and influence, came to realize—and romanticize—what else they lost in the Roaring Twenties when the wireless, initially a means of point-to-point communication, became a medium that, as I put it in my dissertation,

not merely controlled but prevented discourse. Instead of interacting with one another, Depression-era Americans were just sitting around in the parlor, John Dos Passos observed, “listening drowsily to disconnected voices, stale scraps of last year’s jazz, unfinished litanies advertising unnamed products that dribble senselessly from the radio,” only to become receptive to President Roosevelt’s deceptively communal “youandme” from the fireside.

Rather than “listening drowsily,” disenfranchised Mimi Benton, anathema to corporate sponsors, reclaims the medium by claiming the microphone for her own quest and, with it, seizes the opportunity to restore an intimate bond that society forced her to sever. These days, Mimi Benton would probably start a campaign on Facebook or blog her heart out—unless she chose to lose herself in virtual realities or clutch a Tamagotchi, giving up a quest in which the medium can only be a means, not an end.


Related writings
“Radio at the Movies: Torch Singer (1933)”
“Radio at the Movies: Manslaughter (1922)”

A “kind of monster”: Me[, Fascism] and Orson Welles

It doesn’t happen often that, after watching a 21-century movie based on a 21-century novel, I walk straight into the nearest bookstore to get my hands on a shiny paperback copy of the original, the initial publication of which escaped me as a matter of course. Come to think of it, this never happened before; and that it did happen in the case of Me and Orson Welles has a lot to do with the fact that the film is concerned with the 1930s, with New York City, and with that wunderkind from Wisconsin, the most lionized exponent of American radio drama, into which by now dried up wellspring of entertainment, commerce and propaganda it permits us a rare peek. You might say that I was the target audience for Richard Linklater’s comedy, which goes a long way in explaining its lack of success at the box office.

And yet, despite the film’s considerable enticements—among them its scrupulous attention to verisimilitudinous detail and a nonchalant disregard for those moviegoers who, having been drawn in by Zac Efron, draw a blank whenever references to, say, Les Tremayne or The Columbia Workshop are being tossed into their popcorn littered laps—it wasn’t my fondness for the subject matter, much less the richness of the material, that convinced me to pick up Robert Kaplow’s novel, first published in 2003. Indeed, it was the glossiness of the treatment that left me with the impression that something had gotten lost or left behind in the process of adaptation—and I was curious to discover what that might be.

On the face of it, the movie is as faithful to the novel as the book is to the history and culture on which it draws.  Much of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from the page, even though the decision not to let the protagonist remain the teller of his own tale constitutes a significant shift in perspective as we now get to experience the events alongside the young man rather than through his mind’s eye.  In one trailer for the film, the voice-over narration is retained, suggesting how much more intimate and intricate this story could have been—and indeed is in print—and how emotionally uninvolving the adaptation has turned out to be.

Without Samuels’s narration and with a scene-stealing performance by Christian McKay as Welles, the screen version gives the unguarded protégé, portrayed by the comparatively bland Efron, rather less of a chance to have the final word and to claim center stage, as the sly title suggests, by putting himself first.

The question at the heart of the story, on page and screen alike, is whether successes and failures are born or made.  Prominence or obscurity, life or death, are not so much determined by individual talent, the story drives home, but by the circumstances and relationships in which that talent can or cannot manifest itself.  We know Welles is a phony when he goes around giving the same spiel to each member of the cast who is about to crack up and endanger the opening of the show, insisting that they are “God-created.”  They are, if anything, Welles-created or Welles-undone.

Finding this out the hard way—however easy it may have looked initially—is high school student Richard Samuels who, stumbling onto the scene quite by accicent, becomes a minor player in a major theatrical production of a Shakespearean drama directed by a very young, and very determined, Orson Welles.  Samuels’s fortunes are made and lost within a single week, at the end of which his name is stricken from the playbill and his life reconsigned to inconspicuity, all on account of that towering ego of the Mercury.

The premise is an intriguing one: a forgotten man who lives to tell how and why he did matter, after all—a handsome stand-in for all of us who blew it at some crucial stage in our lives and careers.  Shrewdly concealing that it was he who nearly ruined the Mercury during dress rehearsal by setting off the sprinklers, Samuels can luxuriate in the belief that he may have inadvertently saved the production by reassuring a superstitious Welles that opening night would run smoothly.

Speculating about the personalities and motives of historical figures, dramas based on true events often insert an imaginary proxy or guide into the scene of the action, a marginal figure through or with whom the audience experiences a past it is invited to assume otherwise real.  And given that Me and Orson Welles goes to considerable length capturing the goings-on at the Mercury Theater, anno 1937, I was quite willing to make that assumption.  Hey, even Joe Cotten looks remarkably like Joseph Cotten (without the charisma, mind).

It was not until I read the novel that I realized that Kaplow and the screenwriters, while ostensibly drawing their figures from life, attributed individual traits and behaviors to different real-life personages.  Whereas actor George Coulouris is having opening night jitters on screen, it was the lesser-known Joseph Holland who experienced same in the novel.

Although quite willing to let bygones be fiction, I consulted Mercury producer John Houseman’s memoir Run-through, which suggests that the apprehensive one was indeed Coulouris.  Houseman’s recollections also reveal that the fictional character of Samuels was based in part on young Arthur Anderson, a regular on radio’s Let’s Pretend program who, like Samuels, played the role of Lucius in the Mercury production.  According to Houseman, it was Anderson who flooded the theater by conducting experiments with the sprinkler valves.

Never mind irrigation; I was trying to arrive at the source of my irritation, which, plainly put, is this: Why research so thoroughly to so little avail? Why be content to present a slight drama peopled with folks whose names, though no longer on the tip of everyone’s tongue, can be found in the annals of film and theater? The missed opportunity—an opportunity that Welles certainly seized—of becoming culturally and politically relevant makes itself felt in the character of Sam Leve, the Mercury’s set designer—a forgotten character reconsidered in the novel but neglected anew in the screenplay.

Anderson’s contributions aside, it is to Leve’s account of the Mercury’s Julius Caesar that Kaplow was indebted, a debt he acknowledges in the “Special thanks” preceding the narrative he fashioned from it.

“[P]oor downtrodden Sam Leve”—as Simon Callow calls him rather patronizingly in his biography of Orson Welles—was very nearly denied credit for his work on the set.  Featuring prominently in the novel, he is partially vindicated by being given one of the novel’s most poignant speeches, a speech that turns Me and Orson Welles into something larger and grander than an intriguing if inconsequential speculation about a brilliant, egomaniacal boy wonder.

Confiding in Leve, with whom he has no such exchange in the movie, Samuels calls Welles a “kind of monster,” to which Leve replies: “We live in a world where monsters get their faces on the covers of the magazines.”  In this exchange is expressed what might—and, I believe, should—have been the crux of the screen version: the story of a “kind of monster,” a man who professes to turn Julius Caesar into an indictment of fascism, however conceptually flawed (as Callow points out), but who, in his dictatorial stance, refuses to acknowledge Leve’s contributions in the credits of the playbill and shows no qualms in replacing Samuels when the latter begins to assert himself.

“As in the synagogue we sing the praises of God,” Leve philosophizes in the speech that did not make it into the screenplay, “so in the theatre we sing the dignity of man.”  Without becoming overly didactic or metaphorical, Me and Orson Welles, the motion picture, could have put its authenticity to greater, more dignified purpose by not obscuring or trivializing history, by reminding us that Jews like Leve and Samuels were fighting for recognition as the Jewish people of Europe were facing annihilation.

To some degree, the glossy, rather more Gentile film version is complicit in the effacement of Jewish culture by homogenizing the story, by removing the Jewish references and Yiddish expressions that distinguish Kaplow’s novel.  Instead of erasing the historical subtext, the film might have encouraged us to see the Mercury’s troubled production of Julius Caesar as an ambitious if somewhat ambiguous and perhaps disingenuous reading of the signs of the times, thereby making us consider the role and responsibility of the performing arts—including films like Me and Orson Welles—in the shaping of history and of our understanding of it.


Related writings
“On This Day in 1938: The Mercury Players ‘dismember Caesar’”
“On This Day in 1937: The Shadow Gets a Voice-over”

“. . . reduced, blended, modernised”: The Wireless Reconstitution of Printed Matter

Nearly two centuries ago, young Rebecca Sharp marked her entrance into the world by hurling a book out of a coach window. That book, reluctantly gifted to her by the proprietress of Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies, was Johnson’s dictionary, a volume for which Ms. Sharp had little use, given that she was rarely at a loss for words. By the time her story became known, in 1847, words in print had become a rather less precious commodity, especially after the British stamp tax was abolished in 1835, which, in turn, made the emergence of the penny press possible. Publications were becoming more frequent—and decidedly more frivolous.

Gone were the days when a teenager like Mary Jones, whose story I encountered on a trip to the Welsh town of Bala last weekend, walked twenty-five miles, barefooted, for the privilege of owning a Bible. Sure, I enjoy the occasional daytrip to Hay-on-Wye, the renowned “Town of Books” near the English border where, earlier this month, I snatched up a copy of the BBC’s 1952 Year Book (pictured). Still, ever since the time of the great Victorian novelists, the reading public has been walking no further than the local lending library or wherever periodicals were sold to catch up on the latest fictions and follow the exploits of heroines like Becky Sharp in monthly installments.

In Victorian times, the demand for stories was so great that poorly paid writers were expected to churn them out with ever greater rapidity, which left those associated with the literary trade to ponder new ways of meeting the supply. In Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), a young woman assisting her scholarly papa is startled by an

advertisement in the newspaper, headed “Literary Machine”; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to [. . .] turn out books and articles? Alas! The machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for today’s consumption.

Barbara Cartland notwithstanding, such a “true automaton” has not yet hit the market; but the recycling of old stories for a modern audience had already become a veritable industry by the beginning of the second quarter of the 20th century, during which “golden age” the wireless served as both home theater and ersatz library for the entertainment and distraction craving multitudes.

A medium of—and only potentially for—modernity, radio has always culled much of its material from the past, “Return with us now” being one of the phrases most associated with aural storytelling. It is a phenomenon that led me to write my doctoral study Etherized Victorians, in which I relate the demise of American radio dramatics to the failure to establish or encourage its own, autochthonous, that is, strictly aural life form.

Sure, the works of Victorian authors are in the public domain; as such, they are cheap, plentiful, and, which is convenient as well, fairly innocuous. And yet, for reasons other than economics, they strike us as radiogenic. Like the train whistle of the horse-drawn carriage, they seem to be the very stuff of radio—a medium that was quaint and antiquated from the onset, when television was announced as being “just around the corner.”

Perhaps, the followers of Becky Sharp should not toss out their books yet; as American radio playwright Robert Lewis Shayon pointed out, the business of adaptation is fraught with “artistic problems and dangers.” He argued that he “would rather be briefed on a novel’s outline, told something about its untransferable qualities, and have one scene accurately and fully done than be given a fast, ragged, frustrating whirl down plot-skeleton alley.”

It was precisely for this circumscribed path, though, that American handbooks like Jame Whipple’s How to Write for Radio (1938) or Josephina Niggli’s Pointers on Radio Writing (1946) prepared prospective adapters, reminding them that, for the sake of action, they needed to “retain just sufficient characters and situations to present the skeleton plot” and that they could not “afford to waste even thirty seconds on beautiful descriptive passages.”

As I pointed out in Etherized, broadcast writers were advised to “free [themselves] first from the enchantment of the author’s style” and to “outline the action from memory.” Illustrating the technique, Niggli reduced Jane Eyre—one of the most frequently radio-readied narratives—to a number of plot points, “bald statements” designed to “eliminate the non-essential.” Only the dialogue of the original text was to be restored whenever possible, although here, too, paraphrases were generally required to clarify action or to shorten scenes. Indeed, as Waldo Abbot’s Handbook of Broadcasting (1941) recommended, dialogue had to be “invented to take care of essential description.”

To this day, radio dramatics in Britain, where non-visual broadcasting has remained a viable means of telling stories, the BBC relies on 19th-century classics to fill much of its schedule. The detective stories of Conan Doyle aside, BBC Radio 7 has just presented adaptations of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-48), featuring the aforementioned Ms. Sharp, and currently reruns Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles (1855-67). The skeletons are rather more complete, though, as both novels were radio-dramatized in twenty installments, and, in the case of Trollope’s six-novel series, in hour-long parts.

BBC Radio 4, meanwhile, has recently aired serializations of Trollope’s Orley Farm (1862), Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1866) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Next week, it is presenting both Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (both 1853), the former in ten fifteen minute chapters, the latter in three hour-long parts.

Radio playwright True Boardman once complained that adaptations for the aural medium bear as close a relation to the original as “powdered milk does to the stuff that comes out of cows.” They are culture reconstituted. “[R]educed, blended, [and] modernised“, they don’t get a chance to curdle . . .

Note: Etherised Victorians was itself ‘reduced and blended,’ and published as Immaterial Culture in 2013.


Related writings (on Victorian literature, culture and their recycling)
“Hattie Tatty Coram Girl: A Casting Note on the BBC’s Little Dorrit
“Valentine Vox Pop; or, Revisiting the Un-Classics”
“Curtains Up and ‘Down the Wires'”
Eyrebrushing: The BBC’s Dull New Copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Bold Portrait”