“. . . from a civilized land called Wales”: A Puzzlement Involving The King and I

I rose before the sun, and ran on deck to catch an early glimpse of the strange land we were nearing; and as I peered eagerly, not through mist and haze, but straight into the clear, bright, many-tinted ether, there came the first faint, tremulous blush of dawn, behind her rosy veil [ . . .]. A vision of comfort and gladness, that tropical March morning, genial as a July dawn in my own less ardent clime; but the memory of two round, tender arms, and two little dimpled hands, that so lately had made themselves loving fetters round my neck, in the vain hope of holding mamma fast, blinded my outlook; and as, with a nervous tremor and a rude jerk, we came to anchor there, so with a shock and a tremor I came to my hard realities.

With those words, capturing her first impression and anticipation of a “strange land” as, on 15 March 1862, it came into partial view—the “outlook” being “blinded”—aboard the steamer Chow Phya, Anna Harriette Leonowens commenced The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), the “Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok.” The account of her experience was to be followed up by a sensational sequel, Romance of the Harem (1872), both of which volumes became the source for a bestselling novel, Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam (1944), several film and television adaptations, as well as the enduringly crowd-pleasing musical The King and I.

Conceived for musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence, the titular “I” is currently impersonated by Shona Lindsay, who, until the end of August 2009, stars in the handsomely designed Aberystwyth Arts Centre Summer Musical Production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic.

The title of the musical personalizes the story, at once suggesting authenticity and acknowledging bias. Just as it was meant to signal the true star of the original production—until Yul Brynner stole the show—it seems to fix the perspective, assuming that we, the audience, see Siam and read its ruler through Anna’s eyes. And yet, what makes The King and I something truly wonderful—and rather more complex than a one-sided missionary’s tale—is that we get to know and understand not only the Western governess, but the proud “Lord and Master” and his daring slave Tuptim.

Instead of accepting Anna as model or guide, we can all become the “I” in this story of identity, otherness and oppression. Tuptim’s experience, in particular, resonates with anyone who, like myself, has ever been compelled, metaphorically speaking, to “kiss in a shadow,” to love without enjoying equality or protection under the law. Tuptim’s readily translatable story, which has been rejected as fictive and insensitive, is emotionally rather than culturally true.

“Truth is often stranger than fiction,” Leonowens remarked in her preface to Romance of the Harem, insisting on the veracity of her account. Truth is, truth is no stranger to fiction. All history is narrative and, as such, fiction—that is, it is made up, however authentic the fabric, and woven into logical and intelligible patterns. Whoever determines or imposes such patterns—the historian, the novelist, the reporter—is responsible for selecting, evaluating, and shaping a story that, in turn, is capable of shaping us.

Tuptim’s adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which strikes us at first strange and laughable—then uncanny and eerily interchangeable—in its inauthentic, allegorical retelling of a fiction that not only made but changed history, is an explanation of and validation for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sentimental formula. Through the estrangement from the historically and culturally familiar, strange characters become familiar to us, just Leonowens may have been aided rather than mislead by an “outlook” that was “blinded” by the intimate knowledge of a child’s love.

Strange it was, then, to have historicity or nationality thrust upon me as Anna exclaims, in her undelivered speech to the King, that she hails “from a civilized land called Wales.” It was a claim made by Leonowens herself and propagated in accounts like Mrs. Leonowens by John MacNaughton (1915); yet, according to Susan Brown’s “Alternatives to the Missionary Position: Anna Leonowens as Victorian Travel Writer” (1995), “no evidence supports” the assertion that Leonowens was raised or educated in Wales.

Still, there was an audible if politely subdued cheer in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre auditorium as Anna revealed her fictive origins to us. Granted, I may be more suspicious of nationalism than I am of globalization; but to define Leonowens’s experience with and derive a sense of identity from a single—and rather ironic reference to home—seems strangely out of place, considering that the play encourages us to examine ourselves in the reflection or refraction of another culture, however counterfeit or vague. Beside, unlike last year’s miscast Eliza (in the Arts Centre’s production of My Fair Lady), Anna, as interpreted by Ms. Lindsay, has no trace of a Welsh accent.

As readers and theatergoers, we have been “getting to know you,” Anna Leonowens, for nearly one and a half centuries now; but the various (auto)biographical accounts are so inconclusive and diverging that it seems futile to insist on “getting to know all about you,” no matter now much the quest for verifiable truths might be our “cup of tea.” What is a “puzzlement” to the historians is also the key to the musical, mythical kingdom, an understood realm in which understanding lies beyond the finite boundaries of the factual.

Related writings
“By [David], she’s got it”; or, To Be Fair About the Lady
Delayed Exposure: A Man, a Monument, and a Musical

Related recordings
“Meet Gertrude Lawrence,” Biography in Sound (23 January 1955)
Hear It Now (25 May 1951), which includes recorded auditions for the role of Prince Chulalongkorn in The King and I

” . . . the way of all flesh, material or imaginary”: Conan Doyle at 150

“Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.” That is how Arthur Conan Doyle, not long before his own death in 1930, announced to his readers that he would put an end to his most robust brainchild, the by now all but immortal Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, the figure continues to overshadow every aspect of Dr. Doyle’s career, literary or otherwise. Perhaps, “upstage” is a more precise way of putting it, considering that the venerable sleuth was to enjoy such success in American and British radio drama from the early 1930s to the present day.

“One likes to think that there is some fantastic limbo for the children of imagination,” Doyle assuaged those among his readers who found it difficult to accept that Holmes’s departure was merely “the way of all flesh.”

To be sure, the earlier incident at the Reichenbach Falls suggested that Holmes was impervious to threats of character assassination, that he could reappear, time and again, in the reminiscences of Doctor Watson. Still, Doyle’s intention to do away with Holmes so early in the detective’s literary career had been no mere publicity stunt. Rather than feeling obliged to supply the public with the puzzles they craved, the author felt that his “energies should not be directed too much into one channel.”

One of the lesser-known alternative channels considered by Doyle has just been reopened for inspection. Today, 22 May, on the 150th anniversary of Doyle’s birth in 1859, BBC Radio Scotland aired “Vote for Conan Doyle!” a biographical sketch “specially commissioned” to mark the occasion. In it, writer and Holmes expert Bert Coules relates how, in 1900, Doyle embarked on a career in politics. He decided to stand for parliament; but the devotees of Sherlock Holmes would not stand for it.

Coules’s play opens right where Doyle had first intended to wash his hands of Holmes—at the Reichenbach Falls. No matter how sincere Doyle was in improving the Empire’s image and the plight of the British’s troops during the Second Boer War, the push hardly met with the approval of the reading public. “How could you!” “How dare you!” “You brute!” the public protested.

Although it was not this perceived case of filicide that did him in, Doyle proved unsuccessful in his campaign—and that despite support from Dr. Bell, who served as an inspiration for Holmes. After his defeat, Doyle “bowed to the inevitable—and back the man came.”

When the The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1927, Doyle dropped the man once more, albeit in a gentler fashion. To assuage loyal followers, he fancied Holmes and Watson in some “humble corner” of the “Valhalla” of British literature. Little did he know that the “fantastic limbo” in which the two were to linger would be that in-between realm of radio, a sphere removed from both stage and page—but nearer than either to the infinite “O” between our ears.

It hardly surprises that, Radio Scotland’s efforts to get out the “Vote for” and let us walk “In the Footsteps of Conan Doyle” aside, most of the programs presumably devoted to Doyle are concerned instead with “The Voice of Sherlock Holmes” and the “Game” that is “Afoot” when thespians like Cedric Hardwicke, John Gielgud, Carleton Hobbs and Clive Merrison approach the original. It is not Doyle’s life that is celebrated in these broadcasts, but Holmes’s afterlife.

True, to the aficionados of Doyle’s fiction, Sherlock Holmes has never been in need of resuscitation. Yet, as Jeffrey Richards remarked in “The Voice” (first aired in 1998),

[r]adio has always been a particularly effective medium for evoking the world of Holmes and Watson. The clatter of horses hoofs on cobbled streets, the howl of the wind on lonely moors, and the sinister creaks and groans of ancient manor houses steeped in history and crime.

The game may be afoot once more when Holmes returns to the screen this year; but, outside the pages that could never quite contain him, it is the “fantastic limbo” of radio that kept the Reichenbach Falls survivor afloat. It is for the aural medium—the Scotland yardstick for fidelity in literary adaptation—that all of his cases have been dramatized and that, in splendid pastiches like “The Abergavenny Murder,” the figure of Sherlock Holmes has remained within earshot all these years.

Related writings
“‘What monstrous place is this?’: Hardy, Holmes, and the Secrets of Stonehenge”
“Radio Rambles: Cornwall, Marconi, and the ‘Devil’s Foot’”
Old Sleuth Re-emerges in New Medium for American Ho(l)mes

Re: Boot (A Mental Effort Involving Distant Cousins)

Like many a woebegone youth of my generation—once known as the No Future generation—I entered the crumbling empire of Evelyn Waugh’s fictions by way of that lush, languid serial adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. It wasn’t so much what I saw as what I had missed that made me pick up the book. Owing to my mother’s loyalty to Dynasty, which aired opposite Brideshead on West German television back in the early 1980s, I was obliged to fill whatever holes our weekly appointment with the Carringtons had blasted into Waugh’s plot. Even more circuitous was my subsequent introduction to A Handful of Dust. In keeping with the title—and in poor housekeeping besides—a tatty paperback of it had been cast to steady a wonky table in the community room of a nurse’s residence at the hospital where I carried out such duties as were imposed on me during the mandatory twenty-month stretch of civil service any boy not inclined to be trained for military action was expected to fulfill.

For twenty months, I, who ought to have been eating strawberries with Charles Ryder, served canteen slop and sanitized bedpans at a Cologne hospital. Was there ever a locality less deserving of the name it gave to the art of concealing our stenches, of which Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once “counted two and seventy” in Cologne alone? My head was not held very high during those days, which probably led me to investigate just what propped up that misshapen piece of furniture. For once, though, I had reason to lament being downcast. A Handful of Dust turned out to be a rare find.

Counting the weeks to my release, I could sympathized with its anti-hero, the hapless Tony Last, trapped as he was in the wilds of the Amazon, forced to read the works of Charles Dickens to the one man who could have returned him to civilization but, enjoying his literary escapes, refused to release him—a scenario familiar to regular listeners of thriller anthologies Suspense and Escape.) Like Mr. Last, I had gotten myself in an awful fix—and up a creek that smelled the part.

So, when I think of Evelyn Waugh’s early fictions now, at a time in my life when I can more closely associate with his later Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, what comes to mind is the comparative misery of my youth and the pleasures derived from the incongruities at the heart of his late-1920s and 1930s novels, satires like Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), and Black Mischief (1932). While not inclined to relive those days by revisiting such titles, I could not turn down the chance of another Scoop (1937), the first installment of a two-part adaptation of which is being presented this week by BBC Radio 4.

Ever topical, Scoop is a satire on journalism, war and the money to be made in the Hearstian enterprise of making the news that sells. Finding himself in the midst of it all is William Boot, whose sole contribution to the field of journalism is a “bi-weekly half-column devoted to Nature.” Decidedly not mightier than the sword, his pen produced lines like “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole. . . .” Not the rugged, muscular prose you’d expect from a war correspondent.

It was all a deuced mistake, of course, this business of sending Boot to report on the crisis in Ishmaelia, a “hitherto happy commonwealth” whose Westernized natives no longer “publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop.” The chap who was meant and eager to go among them was William’s namesake, one John Courteney Boot, a fashionable novelist who “kept his name sweet in intellectual circles with unprofitable but modish works on history and travel,” works like “Waste of Time, a studiously modest description of some harrowing months among the Patagonian Indians.”

Absurd situations and wicked caricatures aside, it is Waugh’s prose—the pith of impish phrases like “studiously modest”—that makes a novel like Scoop such a font of literary Schadenfreude. “Amusingly unkind,” the London Times Literary Supplement called it. As it turns out, the joke’s on us once the narration is removed.

Condensing the wild plot in suitably madcap speed, Jeremy Front’s radio adaptation retains little of the narration, sacrificing not only wit but clarity to boot. What is left of the Waugh’s exposition may well lead the listener to believe that John, not William, is the central character. Indeed, like Waugh’s dimwitted Lord Copper, head of the Megalopolitan Newpaper Corporation, listeners are apt to (con)fuse the two.

Unlike Front, Waugh takes great pains to set up the farcical plot, dropping first one Boot, then another, and makes it clear just how the unequal pair are matched:

“The fashionable John Courtney Boot was a remote cousin [of William],” Waugh’s narrator informs us, but they “had never met.” Too eager to get on with the story, Front omits these line, relying solely on the juxtaposition of the two characters, who, during those first few minutes of the play, are little more than names to us.

However bootless the lament, I wish those stepping into the wooden O of radio today would put themselves in the shoes of their listener. Before experimenting with fancy footwork, they should consult a few classics to arrive at the proper balance between dialogue and narration. Otherwise, a potential Scoop can seem like such a Waste of Time—especially to those whose concentration is impaired by plot-obstructive reminiscences . . .

Related recordings
“The Man Who Liked Dickens,” Suspense (9 Oct. 1947)
“The Man Who Liked Dickens,” Escape (21 December 1952)

“Here is your forfeit”: It’s Hopkins’s Night As Colbert Goes Private

“Our guest stars might well have been tailored for the celebrated parts of Peter and Ellie,” host Orson Welles remarked as he raised the curtain on the Campbell Playhouse production of “It Happened One Night,” heard on this day, 28 January, in 1940. Quite a bold bit of barking, that. After all, the pants once worn by bare-chested Clark Gable were handed down to William Powell, who was debonair rather than brawny. “Mr. William Powell surely needs no alteration at all,” Welles insisted, even though the material required considerable trimming. Meanwhile, the part of Ellie, the “spoiled and spirited heiress” whom Peter cuts down to size until he suits her, was inherited by Miriam Hopkins. It had “certainly never been more faultlessly imagined than tonight,” Welles declared. Indeed, as I was reminded by Andre Soares’s interview with biographer Allan Ellenberger on Alternative Film Guide, Hopkins numbered among the leading ladies who had turned down the role and, no doubt, came to regret it, given the critical and commercial success of It Happened, which earned Claudette Colbert an Academy Award.

Now, Welles was prone to hyperboles; but, in light of Colbert’s memorable performance, his claim that the part had “never been more faultlessly imagined”—in a radio adaptation, no less—sounds rather spurious. As it turns out, raspy-voiced Hopkins (whom last I saw in a BFI screening of Becky Sharp) does not give the spirited performance one might expect from the seasoned comedienne. Her timing is off, her emoting out of character, all of which conspires, along with the imposed acceleration of the script, to render disingenuous what is meant to be her character’s transformation from brat to bride; and while Powell, a few fluffed lines notwithstanding, does quite well as the cocky Peter Grant (it was “Warne” when those pants were worn by Gable), the only “spirited” performance is delivered by Bernard Herrmann, the composer of the lively score.

In short, there is little to justify Welles’s introductory boast. Was the Wunderkind getting back at Colbert for standing him up two months earlier, when Madeleine Carroll filled her place in “The Garden of Allah”? What’s more, Colbert appeared to have passed on the chance to reprise her Oscar-winning role for Campbell Playhouse, something she had previously done, opposite Gable in one of his rare radio engagements, for a Lux Radio Theater reworking of the old “Night Bus” story.

That same night, 28 January 1940, Colbert was heard instead on a Screen Guild broadcast in a production of “Private Worlds,” in a role for which she had received her second Academy Award nomination. During the curtain call, Colbert was obliged to “pay a forfeit” after incorrectly replying “The Jazz Singer” to the question “What was the first full-length all-talking picture to come out of Hollywood?” For this, she was ordered to recite a tongue twister; but it wasn’t much of a forfeit, compared to the sense of loss both Colbert and Hopkins must have felt whenever they misjudged the business by rejecting important roles or by risking their careers making questionable choices.

In The Smiling Lieutenant, the two had played rivals who ended their fight over the same man by comparing the state of their undies; now, Hopkins seemed to be rummaging in Colbert’s drawers for the parts she could have had but was not likely to be offered again. Well, however you want to spin it, radio sure was the place for makeshift redressing, for castoffs and knock-offs, for quick alterations and hasty refittings. It catered to the desire of actors and audiences alike to rewrite or at any rate tweak Hollywood history. Go ahead, try it on for size.

Hollywood and the Three Rs (Romance, Realism, and Wrinkles)

A few months ago, I went to see a Broadway musical based on a television play by Paddy Chayefsky. Confronted with those keywords alone, I pretty much knew that A Catered Affair was not the kind of razzle-dazzler that makes me want to join a chorus line or find myself a chandelier to swing from. A Catered Affair is more Schlitz than champagne, more kitchen sink than swimming pool. Drab, stale, and too-understated-for-a-thousand-seater, it left me colder than yesterday’s toast (and I said as much then).

What made me want to attend the Affair was the chance to see three seasoned performers who, before being thus ill catered to, had been seen at grander and livelier dos: Faith Prince, Tom Wopat, and Harvey Fierstein, whose idea it was to revive and presumably update Chayefsky’s 1955 original. Last night, I caught up with the 1956 movie version as adapted for the screen by Gore Vidal. Similarly drab, but without the cliché-laden lyrics and with a more memorable score by André Previn; and starring Bette Davis, of course.

When we first see Davis’s middle-aged mother on the screen, she is performing her hausfrau chores listening to The Romance of Helen Trent, a radio soap opera that encouraged those tuning in to dream of love in “middle life and even beyond.” It was probably the quickest and most effective way of establishing the character and setting the mood. After all, Davis’s Aggie, whose own marriage is not the stuff of romance, is determined to throw her daughter the wedding that she, Aggie, never had. She is living by proxy, as through Trent’s loves and travails, a fictional character that makes it possible for Aggie to keep on dreaming.

Once again, I was thankful for my many excursions into the world of radio drama; but I also wondered whether the aging Ms. Davis and her far from youthful co-star, Ernest Borgnine, are giving me what Helen Trent promised its listeners back then: an assurance that life goes on past 35 (which, in today’s life expectancy math, translates into, say, 45).

I rarely watch or read anything with or by anyone yet living. It is not that I am morbid—it is because I prefer a certain kind of writing and movie-making. To me, whatever I read, see, or experience is living, insofar as my own mind and brain may be considered alive or capable of giving birth. So, when I followed up our small-screening of The Catered Affair by the requisite dipping into the Internet Movie Database, I was surprised to see that, aside from André Previn, three of its key players are not only alive but still active in show business. The unsinkable Debbie Reynolds (no surprise there), the Time Machine tested Rod Taylor (next seen as Winston Churchill in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), and the indomitable Mr. Borgnine, who has five projects in various stages of production. Not even cats can count on Borgnine lives. To think that, having played a middle-aged working man some five decades ago and still going strong today is both inspiring and . . . exasperating.

Why exasperating? Well, the media contribute to or are responsible for the disappearing act of many an act over the age of, say, fifty (or anyone who looks what we think of as being past middle aged, no matter how far we manage to stretch our earthly existence or Botox our past out of existence these days). You might repeat or even believe the adage that forty is the new thirty, but in Hollywood, sixty is still the same-old ninety. Sure, there are grannios (cameos for the superannuated) and grampaparts in family mush or sitcoms; but few films explore life beyond fifty without rendering maturity all supernatural in a Joan Collins sort of way.

Helen Trent and the heroines of radio were allowed to get old because audiences did not have to look at—or past—the wrinkles and liver spots. High definition, I suspect, is only taking us further down the road of low fidelity, away from the age-old romance that is the reality of life.

Hattie Tatty Coram Girl: A Casting Note on the BBC’s Little Dorrit

They’re still after him, those producers of television drama. And they know that many of us are eager to follow and go after him as well. In a way, we can’t help being After Dickens, to borrow the title of a study on “Reading, Adaptation and Performance” by John Glavin. It’s a sly title, that. After all, we are belated in our pursuit; we don’t just try to catch up. We are bringing something to the most dangerous game that is the act of reading. We make sense and we remake it, too. This time around, Andrew Davies, the writer responsible for the award-winning dramatization of Bleak House, has tackled Little Dorrit (1855-57), one of the lesser-known works in the Dickens canon. Having greatly enjoyed the former when it first aired back in 2005, I am again drawn away from the wireless to go after what’s being shared out, a little at a time, by radio’s rich, distant relation.

Now, it has been some time since I last read Little Dorrit. During my graduate studies, the novel tantalized me with its perplexing nomenclature. Dickens’s uncrackable code of names and monikers inspired me to dabble in the dark art of onomastic speculation. The result of my academic labors, “Nominal Control: Dickens’s Little Dorrit and the Challenges of Onomancy,” is available online. While Dickens’s names still have a familiar ring to me, some of the faces, as interpreted and fixed for us by the adaptor, seem to have changed. Never mind Arthur Clennam, who is rather younger than the middle-aged man Dickens was so bold to place at the center of his novelistic commentary on the manners, mores and money matters of Victorian Britain. The character of Tattycoram is the one to watch and not recognize: a foundling turned changeling.

In the original story, Tattycoram (alias Harriet Beadle, alias Hattey—the act of naming is that complicated in Little Dorrit) is introduced as a “handsome girl with lustrous dark hair and eyes, and very neatly dressed.” As portrayed by Freema Agyeman, Tatty certainly fits the bill: a handsome girl with dark hair and eyes, and, my hat off to the costume department, neatly dressed. Hang on, though. The color of her skin has changed; and it is a change that really makes a difference. Has Tattycoram just “growed” that way? Or is this a case of revisionism?
It sure is not simply a case of equal opportunity, if such cases are ever simple. A black Tattycoram transforms the very fabric of Little Dorrit. It imposes an historical subtext on our reading of the story and the young woman’s part in it.

Adaptors, like translators, frequently engage in such updates, if that is the word for what amounts to anachronism. I was not bothered by the Lesbian characters the BBC insisted on sneaking into the staid mysteries of Agatha Christie, even though such reorientations seemed gratuitous and, in their treatment, out of place and time. The transformation of Tattycoram, however, is altogether more complicated.

True, slavery was abolished in Britain well before the story of Little Dorrit commences; but, in the Victorian novel, the black or mulatto figure remained largely invisible, or else was the brunt of derision. One such laughing-stock character is Thackeray’s Miss Swartz, the “rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt’s” who parades through Vanity Fair being “about as elegantly decorated as a she chimney-sweep on May-day.” In Dickens’s Bleak House, sympathy toward blacks is dismissed as the folly of “educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.”

The BBC revision of Little Dorrit comes across as an un-Dickensian, modern extension of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its sensitive and unsentimental treatment of the girl from Coram, the notorious London hospital recently revisited in Coram Boy. As a result, Tattycoram is less of a caricature than most of Dickens’s typically flat characters. Of the nearly one hundred personages we come across in Little Dorrit—which, according to the Radio Times, were reduced to around seventy-five in the process of adaptation—it is Tattycoram who now stands out as she struggles to emerge from her socially imposed conspicuous invisibility. It is an undue attention, warranted only by her transformation.

Showing a little skin, or skin a little darker, Davies’s retailoring may strike some of us acquainted with the genuine article as a bold new cut. To others, it seems that, in the process of giving the old Empire new clothes, the Dickensian fabric has gotten more than a Little Tatty. It got a new, postcolonial label that makes it seem like a knockoff.

They’re still after Dickens, all right. The question is: do they even try to get him?

The Transplanted Mind: A Caligari for Radio?

“Poor print.” That was all I had to say after attending a screening of Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1920) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I was dreadfully disappointed. It felt like walking through an exhibition of Expressionist art in which all the paintings were covered in plastic, the lights dimmed, and the space brightened only by an occasional flash of a camera. I pretty much had the same impression when, preparing for a trip to Prague, I tried to take in Der Golem by exposing myself to the horrors of a cheap copy I had dug out of a bargain bin at a third-rate department store. You might as well experience these films on the radio, where the visuals are as clear and bold as you can make them, provided your mental camera is both creative and focused enough to take pictures that are worth keeping.

Tonight, BBC Radio 3 attempted no less with “Caligari,” a radio adaptation of Robert Wiene’s seminal horror film, one of the few classics of the cinema to rank among the top 250 films on the Internet Movie Database. In the exposition, poet/playwright Amanda Dalton slyly comments on the challenges of such a project. “Caligari” opens with the sound of a board (an advertisement for the fair, a title card for the film, a piece of scenery) being painted and hammered into position. The question this gesture begs is whether the brush and the hammer are being passed on to us. Are we the artist, the audience, or the subject? Can we choose? Must we?

A “strangely arresting” film that succeeds in giving “pictorial interpretation to a madman’s vision,” one early commentator (Carlyle Ellis) said of Caligari. Such a statement drives home that Caligari is itself an exercise in translation: a bringing to light and darkness the workings of a crooked, crazy mind in crooked, crazy images. Rather than a translation, then, Dalton’s “Caligari” (available online until 2 November 2008) should be performing nothing more—and nothing less—than a transplant, a projection of a madman’s vision onto the screen of our own mental theater, sound or otherwise.

By installing a narrator at the changing scene, “Caligari” insists on translating and interpreting, at times so facetiously as to undermine any sense of terror. Irritation, perhaps, but not anxiety. More clamorous and voluble than radio needs to be, Dalton’s frantic, play, whose light-heartedness is weighed down by anachronistic cliches like “over my dead body,” is, for all its irreverence, an unsatisfactorily literal transliteration. Too many voices shouting down our imagination, “Caligari” reviews familiar images it does not permit our mind’s eye to see, let alone re-envision or remake. A running commentary on the original on a familiarity with which it depends, “Caligari” plays itself out as a series of aural footnotes.

Last Friday, during an ostensible lecture on German film prior to a screening of Germany’s latest cinematic export, Die Welle (2008), I once again caught glimpses of Wiene’s seminal work; but its images were taken out of a context that the dull, rambling talk could not create. I had a similar attitude toward Dalton’s adaptations. A few bars of the German national anthem, as it was once sung (that is, including the first stanza, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”), can hardly suffice in assisting us to adopt a Weimar Republican mindset; nor can mentions of an “intricate design” recreate an expressionistic set. And while a babble of tongues may make a failed democratic system audible, “Caligari” is little more than a poor substitute for the experience of either art or history.

Meanwhile, I am sure that the jack-o’-lantern I carved today (and display above) would look better on the air or in anyone’s mind, especially now that Montague, our terrier, has already begun to disfigure it. Is he adopting traits you may have decided to attribute to me?

The Lilt of the Lilliputian

A few years ago, walking home from graduate school one afternoon, I stopped by at a second-hand bookstore in my old neighborhood of Yorkville, Manhattan. Judging from the window display, the shop seemed to specialize in children’s books and memorabilia. While this did not deter me, I hardly expected to make any significant acquisition of a volume on the subject to which this journal is chiefly devoted. I mean, I was not looking for a decoder ring or some such souvenir from the bygone age of radio dramatics. I was, after all, researching my dissertation. There was on the shelves a beautiful copy of Adventure in Radio (1945). Subtitled “A Book of Scripts for Young People,” it may be expected to include juvenile playlets written for the medium, although not necessarily produced on network radio. On such compilations, of which there are many, I was not inclined to waste money or time.

Spiting my assumptions, Adventure not only contains a number of broadcast scripts from programs like Jack Armstrong and Let’s Pretend, but also propaganda plays and wartime commentaries geared toward an adult audience. In addition, it offers insights on the production of radio plays, on sound effects, announcing, and “radio language.” It took a little salestalk from the owner of the by now long closed store, but I was soon convinced. Where (I did not know much about eBay back then) would I ever find such a book again? And how could I claim to be serious about old-time radio if I did not snatch up this copy? So, I handed over my $40 (it was the price tag that made me hesitate) and walked off, eager to continue my studies . . . and determined to find the recordings to match the published scripts now at my fingertips.

That often proved quite difficult; but, I had made up my mind that I was not going to write about words divorced from performance. I wanted to hear what was being done with those scripts, how they were edited and interpreted. Take the NBC University Theater’s production of “Gulliver’s Travels,” for instance. It was broadcast on this day, 24 September, in 1948. My appreciation of the challenges of soundstaging the play grew after reading the comments with which Frank Papp, a director of radio drama for NBC, prefaces the script, originally written for the series World’s Great Novels. Papp points out the “unusual problems” Frank Wells’s adaptation posed in production:

In the matter of casting, the Lilliputian was the most difficult. Here was needed a voice which gave the illusion of a tiny man. A trick voice in itself would be only a caricature. What was required was a voice that created a picture of a real human being of Lilliputian size. After extensive auditioning, an actor was found whose talent and vocal capabilities fulfilled these requirements.

The actor portraying Gulliver was placed in an isolation booth, Papp explains, “so that the Lilliputian’s voice would not spill over into his microphone” and the two voices could be miked separately, with a volume reflecting the size of each character. The voice of the King of Brobdingnag, meanwhile, was “fed” both through an electronic filter to amplify its base quality and through NBC’s largest echo chamber to create the illusion of a giant.

The 24 September 1948 presentation of “Gulliver’s Travels,” starring Henry Hull in the title role, does not quite live up to the expectations raised by Papp’s introduction. Under the direction of Max Hutto, child actor (Anthony Boris) is cast in the role of the Lilliputian, a choice that infantilizes the character and renders pointless the effects achieved by the sound engineer. While Wells’s script downsizes Swift’s story and diminishes its bitterness and bite, it is the production that contributes to a sense that Gulliver’s Travels is, at heart, a juvenile fantasy, despite its airing on the ambitious if misguided NBC University Theater, a program that linked listening to such bowdlerizations with courses in distant learning. I may have been able to match the script with a production, but it was not the one described in Adventure in Radio.

Squeezed as I am into the isolation booth of my preoccupations, it is my mind’s voice that supplies the lilt of the Lilliputian . . .

Twice Behind the High Wall; or, It’s Not the Sane on the Radio

Every once in a while I catch a sound and solid studio era thriller that has heretofore escaped me. One such welcome find is the Curtis Bernhardt-directed High Wall (1947) starring the dark and deadly serious Robert Taylor as an amnesic who finds himself in an asylum for the criminally insane for a murder he may or may not have committed. Initially refusing treatment for fear of having his guilt confirmed along with a sanity that could prove the death of him, he is soon faced with evidence convincing him that he is not beyond hope and sets out to mount the titular structure and leave no stone unturned in an attempt to emerge a free, upright man and levelheaded parent. In this process of tearing down the wall that silences him, Taylor’s character is supported by a member of the staff (Audrey Totter), but all the while impeded by the to him unknown schemer who laid those bricks and is determined to make them insurmountable (Herbert Marshall).

In the architecture of High Wall, the three figures operate with the predictability of trained mice. We know—and are meant to know—that Taylor is innocent, that Totter will be so unprofessional as to confess her love for him, and that Marshall has erected the High Wall to cover up his own guilt. Knowing as much makes us the privileged observers of a neat and well-staged rehabilitation drama, a character study of the three mice in a maze that begins to crumble and lose some of its high tension only after the wall has been taken. A solid suspense drama, nonetheless.

Suspense. That is precisely where I had previously hit upon this High Wall, or, as it turned out, some rudiments thereof. The title rang a bell loudly enough to make me check for such a radio connection. Produced on 6 June 1946, eighteen months prior to the release of the film, “High Wall” presents a similar situation but an altogether different outcome. Both radio version and screen adaptation were based on a story and play by one Bradbury Foote (the motion picture also credits Alan R. Clark). Subsequently, the film that was a radio play that was a stage play and story was reworked anew as a radio play. Starring Van Heflin and Janet Leigh, the remake was soundstaged in Lux Radio Theater on 7 November 1949.

Unlike, say, Sorry, Wrong Number, the property remains sound whether it is thrown onto the big screen or pulverized into thin air. Nothing about the motion picture suggests that what we see has been remodeled from a stage set; likewise, the radio play is so much in keeping with the Suspense formula that it might well have been an original radio drama, written especially for the series. Those at work in structuring and reconstructing both High Wall, the film, and “High Wall,” the radio play, clearly understood the limitations and potentialities of the media for which the product was headed. Whatever his initial idea, Foote did not insist that his words were written in stone.

So, rather than arguing which version is superior, I noted the differences between the Suspense drama and the screen thriller. On the air, the story is decidedly more noir than on the screen. It is more concerned with the demoralizing than with morals; less involved in the cure than in the kill. It draws us in, behind that wall, without signaling a way out. No outline of romance and redemption; no hope foreshadowed. Just the shadow of which we are puppets.

Whereas High Wall is concerned with a man’s struggle to clear his name, “High Wall” deals with a man who barely remembers it. That he is telling us his own story does not make him any less suspicious. Why did he end up in an asylum? Or is he merely stonewalling? We need to know that before we can feel at ease about taking his side. The omniscient film narrative provides us with a villain whose workings are clear to us before they become known to the main character. In the radio play, we don’t know any more than an apparent amnesiac whose mental state and progress are uncertain. As it turns out, what he doesn’t know might just kill you!

The Guardsman Takes a Coffee Break

”I am sure that Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne will never forgive me for what I did to this play,” Arthur Miller commented on his radio adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s The Guardsman. During rehearsals, the celebrated acting twosome stopped reading the to them familiar dialogue and stared at his script “as though a louse had crawled over it. A new series of lines! A whole new scene!” Such is the business of writing for radio, which also involves watching your language and having the curtains lowered for you by those who demanded a prominent spot to push their wares.

On this day, 9 May, in 1937, Molnar’s comedy was being served in the time an ulcers sufferer takes to have a coffee break. Make that a Chase and Sanborn coffee break, considering that the makers of said brew sponsored those weekly visits with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, host Don Ameche, and their sundry guests. Stopping by “to say hello” that evening were screen actress Ann Harding and W. C. Fields—one of them on the way out, the other by way of reintroduction.

Ann Harding, then starring with Basil Rathbone in the Agatha Christie-inspired thriller Love from a Stranger (1937) was to play the role of Marie in the Chase and Sanborn Hour’s instant version of The Guardsman. “[I]t was impossible not to recognize it,” Harding remarks; her character, of course, was not referring to the play itself, but to her thespian husband’s attempt at disguising himself so as to act the part of her lover. Considering that the connubial con-man was played by the less than subtle Don Ameche, there wasn’t much chance of catching anyone off guard.

Listeners did not know that Harding would not get—or seize—the opportunity to play anyone’s lover for years to come. Love from a Stranger would be Harding’s last picture for half a decade, and the man responsible for her prolonged absence from the big screen was right there with her in the broadcasting studio: Werner Janssen, a soon-to-be Academy Award nominated composer. Harding and Janssen were married that year.

Of course, it was not Janssen who upstaged Harding during that Chase and Sanborn broadcast. It was his former colleague . . . W. C. Fields. “Mr. Fields, I’m sure you feel at home because here’s your old follies piano player, Werner Janssen,” whose name the grumpy comic did not trouble himself to recall. Fields was making what Ameche announced as “his appearance since his serious illness” that had “kept him off the stage and out of pictures for over a year.” Fields entered into sparkling banter with aforementioned puppet Charlie McCarthy, an act that would translate into You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939).

Fields was invited back the following week; but Ann Harding (pictured above in a scene from Double Harness) was passing The Guardsman on her way to the altar she eventually refused to “recognize” as a signpost for the end of a career. It is one thing to recognize a partner by his kiss (as Molnar’s Marie does); but to accept that contact as the kiss of death is quite another. Before fellow guests Lorenz and Hart sent listeners off on a “honeymoon express” bound for Buffalo, Niagara Falls and “All Points West” (including Ossining, or “Sing Sing”), Fields gave her an idea her what it meant to spend her days as a half-remembered better half. When introduced to her, he declared: “I know Miss Harding very well. How’s your partner, Mr. Laurel?”