|Sunlight and shadows across my
copy of MacLeish’s Air Raid
Well, only yesterday I wrote about the potentialities of broadcasting and blogging as means and modes of connecting with the world. Today I am going to mark the anniversary of an execrable “disconnect” by relating it to a disturbing episode in my life, a moment of outrage in a period of confusion and despair. Ready?
On this day, 27 October, in 1938, the Columbia Workshop laid an intellectual egg of such poor taste that I sometimes felt the only proper way of connecting to it would be to hurl it right back at its author, the American poet-pamphleteer Archibald MacLeish. The play produced by and broadcast over the US radio network CBS was “Air Raid,” an exercise in propagandist verse. Like “The War of the Worlds”, which aired a few days later over the same network, “Air Raid” entered the anti-fascist debate and commented on the political tensions then mounting in Europe by exploiting and fueling the anxieties of an American public divided between battle cries and isolationism. The nation’s enemies, such plays told in the abstract language to which pre-war radio playwrights were bound to adhere, were not quite so distant as to render their attacks futile.
In “Air Raid,” MacLeish went so far as to hold civilians whose lives were threatened or lost in fascist offensives responsible for their inaction. As in the previously discussed “Fall of the City,” the audience is taken to the scene of terror, listening in as carefree women, heedless of the warnings they receive, ar e going about their daily affairs until blown to bits by machine guns fired from above. The announcer, observing the raid from a secure post, reports and comments on the execution:
There’s the signal: the dip: they’ll
Dive: they’re ready to dive:
They’re steady: they’re heading down:
They’re dead on the town: they’re nosing:
They’re easing over: they’re over:
There they go: there they—
His coverage of the event is cut short by the stammering guns and the shrieking of women and ends in a boy’s calling of my name: “Harry! Harry! Harry!” I did not require such a prompt to feel personally offended.
MacLeish intellectualizing of terror and patronizing of the terrorized is the kind of disastrous argument that reminded me of Susan Sontag’s words shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center. In an article published in the New Yorker, Sontag lamented the “disconnect” between the “monstrous dose of reality” that was 9/11 and the “self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators.”
Sontag opined that the “voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public,” a public lacking in “historical awareness” and subjected instead to the “psychotherapy” of “confidence-building and grief management.” Arguing the insistence on America’s strength to be not “entirely consoling,” Sontag concluded: “Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.”
In retrospect, I find these words unremarkable; they have been uttered many times since. Living through the terror of those days in New York City, however, I was infuriated by such ill-timed chastising from afar (Sontag lived in Paris at the time). I sat down and cried and wrote a lengthy response to let out my anger, shared with the German friend who brought Sontag’s commentary to my attention:
Sie mag aus der Ferne spotten; sähe, fühlte, spürte sie die Stadt würde sie den New Yorkern kaum “Dummheit” vorwerfen. Wenn ich ihr aus der Ferne auch weder Feigheit noch Dummheit unterstellen will, so muss ich doch feststellen, dass Abstand auch eine Freiheit von Anstand bedeuten kann. Sontag schrieb einmal ein erfolgreiches, vielzitiertes, und feines Buch mit dem Titel Against Interpretation. Sie täte gut daran, sich gegen ihre eigenen ‘Interpretationen’ zu sträuben.
In essence, I argued that Sontag should heed the words that formed the title of her book Against Interpretation, that she should have reserved her distant and distancing intellectualizing and her attacks on the supposedly infantile public and the media that pampered it for a period in which a bewildered public was more likely to stomach further humiliation and to respond with a kindness and dignity lacking in Sontag’s words to the unwise.
Attacking both the medium it employs and the masses it engages (that is, attempting to appeal to the latter by questioning the former), MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” like Sontag’s tirade, is a prime example of how not to connect.
Not being revisited by the nuisances of power failures and coughing fits I suffered recently, I find myself willing to rise to something amounting to a challenge. Tackling the ambiguities of Archibald MacLeish’s verse drama “The Fall of the City,” for instance. Originally broadcast on 11 April 1937, “The Fall” was again presented by the Columbia Workshop on this day, 28 September, in 1939. The world changed considerably during the time elapsed between those two productions, adding urgency to a play about . . . well, about what, really?
I’ve grappled at length with “The Fall” in my dissertation, describing the confusion and frustration of critics who sensed the play to be significant but could neither make sense of it nor find much consensus among each other. Some argued that it wasn’t even a play at all. Apparently anticipating this reception, MacLeish prefaced the published script with the following disclaimer:
“Any introduction is a confession of weakness. This one is no exception. It is written because I am anxious to persuade American poets to experiment with verse plays for radio and because I am quite certain the radio verse play I have written will not persuade them of itself.”
US poets were not too keen on having their precious wares compete with soap commercials. Others believed that their words were best spread among the few rather than being freely disseminated through channels of less-than-pure air. The horrors of WWII shook up a number of ivory towers, drawing out poets like Stephen Vincent Benét and Edna St. Vincent Millay in fighting form. In propagandist poetry, the ultimate test of language was not whether it could move listeners, but whether it could get them moving, whether it could motivate them to fight battles, buy bonds, or save kitchen fat.
While American broadcasters were training announcers (like the proud vocal-talent pictured above) to hawk the products of their corporate sponsors, Fascist Germany had been exploiting the power of the spoken word to turn open-minded individuals into a league of like-minded or mindless lemmings. “The Fall of the City” opened a debate about mass persuasion, about the media’s role in molding opinions and fabricating war. Its ambiguity is rooted in a distrust of the very medium it employed.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the play begins, “This broadcast comes to you from the city,” a town whose downfall is first announced, then actualized. It is talked into being as the figure of a radio announcer stands by to document the unfolding event. MacLeish’s announcer takes listeners to the “central plaza” of this unspecified city to become ear-witnesses to the resurrection of a recently buried woman who, for three consecutive days, appeared before a crowd of spectators, and who now utters a baffling prophesy:
The city of masterless men
Will take a master
There will be shouting then:
Amid the bewildered throng (some 500 people participated in creating the sound of the crowd), reporters and politicians are heard trying to interpret the oracle and to fix upon a plan of action. Is the message to be ignored? Is the prophesied attack to be countered or endured? One orator, holds that “[r]eason and truth” are the weapon of choice:
Let this conqueror come!
Show him no hindrance!
Suffer his flag and his drum!
Words . . . win!
His words are powerful enough to have people dancing in the streets—until another speaker convinces them to go into battle. While this exchange of words and changing of minds is going on, the talked-of invader—a hollow suit of armor—takes over and the masses surrender. Unlike William the Conqueror—who, on this day in 1066, made Anglo-Saxon words bow to French langue—he does not have to utter a single syllable to make a message-mangled city fall, its “masterless men” happy to have “found a master.”
Summing up this war of words, the announcer remarks that the “people invent their oppressors: they wish to believe in them.” Are these words to be taken for the author’s? If oppressors are inventions—a notion not going over well with some of MacLeish’s contemporaries—then who is to be entrusted with the power to use or control the media capable of creating such alleged fictions?
It seems that MacLeish was apprehensive about the uniformity of thought produced by broadcast speech. It made his own attempt to invade the medium a troubling undertaking: how to convince your listeners not to take your word for it?
One of the many attractions of Madrid I will make sure not to miss is Picasso’s Guernica (1937), the most famous 20th-century painting in the Reina Sofía collection. A report from the commonplace-turned-combat zone, Guernica is a piece of anti-totalitarian propaganda commemorating the world’s first civilians-targeting air attack: the 26 April 1937 raid on the busy market town of Gernika-Lumo, masterminded by General Franco and carried out by the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany.
For a long time, the painting was kept out of Spain and was mostly on display at the MoMA in New York City, where, during the Vietnam War, it became a site for vigils held by members of the peace movement, one of whom went so far as to deface it with red spray paint. It was Picasso’s wish that Guernica be returned to his homeland only after the reestablishment of democratic rule. A swiftly executed and brutally manipulative commentary on modern warfare, it invites comparisons to the three best-known American verse plays for radio, Archibald MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Murder of Lidice,” and Norman Corwin’s “They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease.”
MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” in contrast to Picasso’s painting, overtly implicates the civilian population, including his radio listeners, castigating them for their supposed ignorance and inertia. As in “The Fall of the City,” MacLeish attacks those falling rather than sentimentalizing their plight. His are bold performances, but his cruel warning turns listeners eager for news into silent partners of war who are asked to “stand by” as they tune in while women and children, refusing to heed warnings of an impending blitz, are being attacked and annihilated:
You who fish the fathoms of the night
With poles on roof-tops and long loops of wire
Those of you who driving from some visit
Finger the button on the dashboard dial
Until the metal trembles like a medium in a trance
And tells you what is happening in France
Or China or in Spain or some such country
You have one thought tonight and only one:
Will there be war? Has war come?
Is Europe burning from the Tiber to the Somme?
You think you hear the sudden double thudding of the drum
You don’t though . . .
Not now . . .
But what your ears will hear with in the hour
No one living in this world would try to tell you.
We take you there to wait it for yourselves.
Stand by: we’ll try to take you through. . . .
Millay’s “Murder of Lidice” recalls the innocent lives of those slain by Richard Heydrich, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, in Lidice. Artistically, the play is indefensible and shockingly inept in its bathos. In Millay’s Grand Guignol of Nazi terror, Heydrich the Hangman, whom the villagers have assassinated, is heard, from the beyond, planning his revenge:
He howls for a bucket of bubbly blood—
It may be man’s or it may be of woman,
But it has to be hot, and it must be human!
Oh, many’s the sweet warm throat he’ll suck.
In “They Fly Through the Air,” Corwin’s narrator goes in search of a language appropriate to the negotiation of art and propaganda. As I point out in Etherized Victorians, the play is a response to the perversion of poetic diction by the fascist cause. Viewed from above, Mussolini reportedly remarked, exploding bombs had the beauty of a “rose unfolding.” Throughout the play, metaphors are at war with plain speech, both in the service of motivating the masses:
What words can compass glories such as we have seen today?
Our language beats against its limitations [. . .].
Our rhythms jangle at the very start.
Our similes concede defeat,
For there is nothing that can be compared to that which lies beyond compare.
You see? We are reduced already to tautologies.
It’s awe does that.
The wonder of it all has set us stammering.
What is the language of war? How does it differ from the idiom of peace? And how shall war—often furious but not always futile—be rendered, recorded, and remembered in words or images? When I look at Guernica this week, I will ask myself these questions. Quite possibly, I will shiver when exposing it to the limitations of my shrinking lexicon.
According to one guidebook (admittedly, a someone dated volume), the citizens of Madrid—the madrileños—have a “lingering suspicion of foreigners” and are reluctant to speak English. Granted, it’s been a while since conquistadors rather than tourists filled Spain’s coffers, but the Spaniards have been known to be somewhat insensitive when it comes to other cultures. There sure is dirt under the old welcome mat.
On this day in 1533, for instance, Francisco Pizarro put an end to the Incan empire by doing away with emperor Atahuallpa. The Incas were not a chirographic people and did not appreciate having the book flung at them—especially not the good book. Intrigued by the thought that the demise of the Inca meant not only the loss of their aureate treasures but of their aural tradition, I flung my travel guides aside and tuned in again to one of the more ambitious if lesser known American radio series of the 1940s, Archibald MacLeish’s American Story.
MacLeish (above, right, in my impression of an image taken from Irving Settel’s Pictorial History of Radio), Pulitzer Prize winner for his poem Conquistador (1933), was one of the first American writers to take radio seriously and to encourage others to emerge from their ivory towers by broadcasting their choice words to the masses. After all, he remarked in the foreword to The Fall of the City, his first and most significant contribution to the aural arts, “what poet ever lived who was really satisfied with writing the thin little books to lie on the front parlor tables?”
As a Librarian of Congress, MacLeish enjoyed ready access to many an obscure document—and radio offered an opportunity of sharing this wealth of unheard words. Rather than dramatizing scenes from history books, MacLeish wanted to let ancient texts speak for themselves:
To place historical personages in historical situations and then imagine the words they must have spoken to each other is to imitate the historical dramas of the stage at the expense of radio’s unique function and unique opportunity. Because radio is limited mechanically to sound, and particularly to the sound of speech, radio is capable of a concentration upon the speech itself, the text itself, which can give words a life and a significance they rarely achieve outside the printed page—and which they achieve there only for the most gifted and fortunate readers.
In “The Many Dead,” one of the scripts for the American Story series, MacLeish drew on the writings of Pizarro’s secretary Francisco de Xeres to recount the death of emperor Atahuallpa. In order to convey this sobering story without turning it into sensational melodrama, the poet-historian chose to deliver the “pertinent excerpts” of Xeres’s official account in the somber and matter-of-fact voice of a clerk, a newscaster of his time:
The Governor [Pizarro] asked the Father Friar Vicente if he wished to go and speak to Atahuallpa with an interpreter. He replied that he did wish it, and he advanced with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other [. . .] and [. . .] thus addressed him: “I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like matter I come to teach you. What I teach is that which God says to us in this Book [. . .].”
Atahuallpa asked for the book that he might look at it, and the priest gave it to him closed. Atahuallpa did not know how to open it, and the Priest was extending his arm to do so, when Atahuallpa, in great anger, gave him a blow on the arm, not wishing that it should be opened [. . .]. Then he opened it himself, and, without any astonishment at the letters and paper, as had been shown by other Indians, he threw it away form him five or six paces . . . .
Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.
Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.
According to Xeres’s account, Pizarro and his men “fearlessly seized” Atahuallpa and the infantry of the Spaniards “made so good an assault” on the fleeing natives that “in a short time most of them were put to the sword.” Pizarro was said to have protected the emperor from the Spaniards—to give him the benefit of a proper execution—and was slightly wounded as a result. “It was a very wonderful thing,” the clerk concludes, “to see so great a lord taken prisoner in so short a time [. . .].”
The men with the books have generally proved victorious over the vocal but readily muted thinkers who spread their words without the benefit of the printing press. Atahuallpa, bereft of his voice after rejecting the book, chose death by strangulation. Even MacLeish, as Librarian of Congress, largely failed in his attempt to return written records to the air and revive the breath that gave them life. Who, after all, still listens to his American Story today?
Now, I hear that the madrileños are a noisy, boisterous people; perhaps the powerful, silencing, and not-so-good book instilled them with confidence. . . .