Forecasts in Hindsight: Wrongly Predicting the 1948 Presidential Election

As my motto ‘Keeping up with the out-of-date’ is meant to suggest, I tend to look toward the past; and yet, I resist retreat.  Retrospection is not retrogressive; nor need it be it a way of reverencing what is presumably lost or of gaining belated control over what back at a certain time of ‘then’ was the uncertainty of life in progress. I am interested in finding the ‘now’ – my ‘now’ – in the ‘then,’ or vice versa, and in wresting currency from recurrences.

Many articles in Crosby’s column made it into this 1952 volume, which is on my bookshelf. The item discussed here did not.

I also tend to look at the ephemeral and everyday, the disposable objects or throwaway remarks we think or rather do not think of at all and dismiss as immaterial and obsolete, as too flimsy to carry any weight for any length of time.  Take an old syndicated newspaper column such as John Crosby’s “Radio in Review,” for instance.  Back in November 1948, Crosby, whose writing was generally concerned with programs and personalities then on the air, commented on a US presidential election that apparently no one, at least no one in the news media, had predicted accurately.  “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune erroneously read on 3 November that year. Having listened to the words dispensed over the airwave on that day after – or, depending on your politics, in the aftermath of an election that paved the way for another term for President Harry S. Truman – Crosby noted:

‘Perhaps never before have such handsome admissions of error reverb[e]rated from so many lips with such a degree of humility as they did on the air last week.’  Truman had been in office since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945; but in 1948, he had confirmation at last that the public – or the majority of those who made their views public and official – agreed that he belonged there.  As Crosby pointed out, even seasoned political commentators had predicted a Republican victory.

‘[T]here probably never has been an election post-mortem in which the words “I told you so” were not heard at all,’ the columnist remarked, adding that ‘if they were said, [he] didn’t hear them.’  To his knowledge, ‘[n]o professional commentators … told anyone so.’

Among those who, according to Crosby, got it more wrong than others was the ultra-conservative broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr., an opportunist and influencer who, Crosby remarked, had gone ‘far beyond’ his fellow commentators by predicting ‘Republican victories in states where most observers foresaw a seesaw battle.’  

Speaking from the secular pulpit that was his radio program, Lewis ‘fully admitted his wrongness’ after the fact, Crosby noted, reading aloud the messages he received from listeners who ‘invited him to drop dead,’ to ‘throw himself’ into Chesapeake Bay, or to ‘go soak his head in a vinegar barrel.’  Far from remorseful or self-deprecating, such revelling in controversy is representative of right-wing provocation as we experience it to this day.  

A question not posed by Crosby is whether future Barry Goldwater supporter Lewis simply got it wrong – or whether he predicted wrongly to demoralise Truman’s supporters by suggesting that a Republican landslide was a foregone conclusion. Given Lewis’s known bias, the miscalculation was obviously not calculated to rattle Truman supporters out of complacency. So, a question worth asking now not how commentators got it so wrong, but why.

Lowell Thomas, a conservative commentator courting an audience of both major parties, insisted that he had not predicted the election but that he had merely ‘passed along the opinions of others.’  Thomas added, however, that, had he made a prediction, ‘he’d have been as wrong as everyone else.’  Unlike Lewis, this statement suggests, Thomas distinguished between reportage and commentary, the line between which was drawn no more clearly in 1948 broadcasting than it is in today’s mass media, discredited though they are as ‘legacy’ and presumably obsolete by the social media weaponizing political right.

Reporter Elmer Davis who, also unlike Lewis, was critical of then on-the-rise Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Democrat who turned Republican and opposed the Truman presidency for being soft on Communism,  provided this statement to his listeners: ‘Any of us,’ he said, ‘who analyze news on the radio or in the papers must hesitate to try to offer any explanation to a public which remembers too well the lucid and convicing explanations we all offered day before yesterday of why Dewey had it in the bag.’  Commentators had ‘beaten’ their ‘breasts’ and ‘heaped ashes’ on their heads since the election, Davis told his audience; but they still looked ‘pretty foolish’ and should probably wait some time before sticking their ‘necks’ out again.

‘Cheer up, you losers,’ veteran newscaster H. V. Kaltenborn declared on his radio program, ‘It isn’t so bad as you think.’  The peculiar mash-up of scoffing, commiserating, mind-reading and prognosticating did not escape Crosby, who wondered just what went on in the ‘mind’ of someone who, more than having misjudged who lost, might himself have lost it.

The ‘explanations as to why President Truman won were almost as identical as the pre-election prediction that he wouldn’t,’ Crosby observed, namely that the nation ‘liked an underdog.’  Just how much of an ‘underdog’ can a presidential incumbent be? Playing one on TV would prove a winning formula for Donald Trump, at least, and the kind of doghouse he managed to furnish for himself, which is so unlike the residence some of us envision as rightfully his, provides support of that theory.

Summing up the state of desperation among commentators, Crosby stated that ‘many’ of them derived rather ‘odd comfort’ from the fact that US ally turned adversary Josef Stalin, who likewise incorrectly predicted a win for Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, ‘had been just as wrong as they were.’

Sure, there is momentary relief in Schadenfreude, seeing those who got it wrong having to admit – or trying to avoid admitting – the fact that, in hindsight, they were demonstrably wrong, and, being wrong, on the wrong side of the future.  And yet, getting it wrong may also be evidence of wrongdoing, of deceit and deviousness.  As someone relegated to the sidelines, I can offer only one reasonable piece of advice to those who prefer a Truman over a Trump: pay attention to but do not trust folks who are determined to convince you that your vote does not matter much by declaring the game to be over when it is still afoot.

That’s No Lady. That’s an Executive: Robert Hardy Andrews’s Legend of a Lady (1949)

Dust jacket of my copy of Legend of a Lady, which I added to my library in June 2020

In “‘Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?’: Exits and Recantations,” the final chapter of Immaterial Culture, I briefly discuss how creative talent working in the US broadcasting industry during the 1930s and 1940s tended to recall their experience upon closing the door to the world of radio in order to pursue careers they deemed more lofty and worthy.  Few had anything positive to say about that world, and their reminiscences range from ridicule to vitriol.

Within a year or two after the end of the Second World War, attacks on the radio industry became widespread and popular; most notable among them was The Hucksters, a novel by Frederic Wakeman, a former employee of the advertising agency Lord & Thomas.  Between 1937 and 1945, Wakeman had developed radio programs and sales campaigns for corporate sponsors, an experience that apparently convinced him to conclude there was ‘no need to caricature radio.  All you have to do,’ the author’s fictional spokesperson sneers, ‘is listen to it.’

Such ‘parting shots,’ as I call them in Immaterial Culture, resonated with an audience that, after years of fighting and home front sacrifices, found it sobering that Democratic ideals, the Four Freedoms and the Pursuit of Happiness were being reduced to the right – and duty – to consume.  After a period of relative restraint, post-war radio went all out to spread such a message, until television took over and made that message stick with pictures showing the latest goods to get and guard against Communism.

Following – and no doubt encouraged by – the commercial success of The Hucksters, the soap opera writer Robert Hardy Andrews published Legend of a Lady, a novel set, like Wakeman’s fictional exposé, in the world of advertising.  Andrews probably calculated that like The Hucksters and owing to it Legend would be adapted for the screen, as his novel Windfall had been.

Unlike in The Hucksters, the industry setting is secondary in Legend of a Lady.  Andrews has less to say about radio than he has about women in the workforce.  And what he has to say on that subject the dust jacket duly proclaims: ‘Legend of a Lady is the story of pretty, fragile Rita Martin, who beneath her charming exterior is hell-bent for personal success and who tramples with small, well-shod feet on all who stand in her way.’  The publisher insisted that ‘it would be hard to find a more interesting and appalling character.’

I did not read the blurb beforehand, and, knowing little about the novel other than the milieu in which it is set, I was not quite prepared for the treatment the title character receives not only by the men around her but by the author. The Legend of the Lady, which I finished reading yesterday, thinking it might be just the stuff for a reboot of my blog, opens intriguingly, and with cinematic potential, as the Lady in question picks up ‘her famous white-enameled portable typewriter in small but strong hands’ and throws it ‘through the glass in the office widow,’ right down onto Madison Avenue, the artificial heart of the advertising industry.

This is Mad Women, I thought, and looked forward to learning, in flashback, how a ‘small but strong’ female executive gets to weaponise a tool of the trade instead of dutifully sitting in front of it like so many stereotypical office gals.  Legend of a Lady is ‘appalling’ indeed, reminding readers that dangerous women may be deceptively diminutive, that they are after the jobs held by their male counterparts, and that, rest assured, dear conservative reader, they will pay for it.  In the end, Rita Martin, a single mother trying to gain independence from her husband and making a living during the Great Depression, exists an office ‘she would never enter again.’  Along the way, she loses everything –spoiler alert – from her sanity to her son.

The blurb promises fireworks, but what Legend of a Lady delivers is arson.  It is intent on reducing to ashes the aspirational ‘legend’ of women who aim to control their destiny in post-war America.  The world of soap opera writing and production serves as mere a backdrop to render such ambitions all the more misguided: soap operas are no more real than the claim that working for them is a meaningful goal.  As a writer of serials for mass consumption, Robert Hardy Andrews apparently felt threatened and emasculated working in a business in which women achieved some success in executive roles.  In a fiction in which men big and small suffer deaths and fates worth than that at the delicate hand of Rita Martin, Andrews created for himself a neo-romantic alter ego – the rude, nonchalant freelance writer Tay Crofton, who refuses to be dominated by a woman he would like to claim for himself but does not accept as a partner on her own terms, presumably because she cannot be entrusted with the power she succeeds in wresting from the men around her without as much as raising her voice.

Devoid of the trimmings and trappings of Hollywood storytelling, without glamor or camp, without gowns by Adrian or brows by Crawford, Legend of a Lady serves its misogyny straight up – but it couches its caution against ‘small’ women in spurious philosophy by claiming that, for men and women alike, there is life outside the proverbial squirrel cage that Andrews relentlessly rattles for his agonizing spin on the battle of the sexes.

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?

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Immaterial Me

My study Immaterial Culture: Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929-1954 has just been published.  So, as well as explaining the subject matter of the book and the objectives of its writer, I decided to devote a few journal entries to the story behind its production, to its birth and life in relation to my own journey.  There is also the small matter of its afterlife, a matter to which no parent, proud or otherwise, can be entirely indifferent.
Along with my other recent publications and current projects, of which I have said nothing in this journal, Immaterial Culture has long kept me from materializing here.  No doubt, I could have made more effective use of broadcastellan as a promotional vehicle.  And yet, writing, like listening to radio plays, is a solitary experience; at least it is so for me.
Like the performers behind the microphone, writers are generally removed from the audience for whom their performance is presumably intended, an audience that often seems so abstract as to be no more than a construct.  The writer, script reader and listener may be sitting in a crowded room, and that crowd may well matter; but what matters more is the immateriality of the words once they are read or spoken.  Words that create images or match stored ones.  Words that evoke and awake feelings, stimulate thought.  Words that, uttered though they are to the multitude, begin to matter personally and take on a multitude of new lives.
That Immaterial Culture is a profoundly personal book will not be readily apparent to anyone reading it.  After all, I have refrained from using the first person singular to refer to myself as the reader or interpreter of the plays I discuss.  I thought I’d leave the privilege to say “I” to that “obedient servant” of the Mercury Theatre, the orotund Orson Welles.  Instead, I decided to disappear and let the play scripts and productions I audition take center stage, a prominent position they are often denied.  Talking about old radio plays as if they have no presence, as if they are chiefly of interest to the (broadcast) historian, only makes matters worse.

Immaterial Culture, then, is an invitation to listen along, an invitation to talk about American radio plays of the past as one still discusses the material culture of books, motion pictures, theater, and television programs …

Difficult as Pie: A Priestley Postscript

Cover of Postscripts (1940) by J. B. Priestley
I have never heard J. B. Priestley deliver his famous Postscripts, a series of morale-boosting talks broadcast to the British public during those early, uncertain and hence no doubt most terrifying days of the Second World War.  Many decades later, actor Patrick Stewart returned Priestley’s lines to the airwaves that had once carried them into the homes of millions; but somehow I could not get excited about those recreations.  For, no matter how delayed an originally live broadcast, its recording yet retains the immediacy of a first-hand experience that no re-enactment can approach.

Recently, I came across the published Postscripts(1940).  Unlike Stewart’s voiceovers, the printed speeches are unabridged and, their author insists, “exactly as they were, without a speck of retouching.”  These are “wireless talks and not essays,” Priestley cautions the reader:

If I had my way they would never have re-appeared in this form, to be examined at leisure instead of being caught on the wing every Sunday at nine-fifteen, but the requests for a volume of them have come in so thick and fast during these last three months, that I felt it would be churlish to refuse.  So here they are, and please don’t blame them now, for they have already done the work they were intended to do.

Indeed, reading those scripts aloud now, I can, even in my own indifferent, untrained voice, hear them doing their work.  Priestley indulges in none of the hysterics and hyperboles that so often render alienating what is meant to be persuasive speech.  They are sentimental, these talks, and they are sane. 

As Priestley puts it in the Preface, the

tricks of the writing trade and some fortunate accidents of voice and manner are all very well, but what really holds the attention of most decent folk is a genuine sharing of feelings and views on the part of the broadcaster.  He must talk as if he were among serious friends….

Priestley’s Postscripts are simply words of encouragement, gentle reminders that much of our seemingly inconsequential everyday is worth holding on to as it defines who we are, that the loss of even the slightest thing may be keenly felt as a threat to our identity.  Take a piece of pie, for instance—and make it a fake one.

That is just what Priestley did, on this day, 29 September, in 1940, when he talked about returning home to Bradford, the “solid real place” of his childhood.  The seemingly random devastation caused by a recent air raid, though far less grand in scale than the attacks on London, “made a far deeper impression” on Priestley “because it somehow brought together two entirely different worlds; the safe and shining world of my childhood, and this insecure and lunatic world of to-day.”

The local bakery, too, had suffered during the raid; but there, in the broken, half boarded up window, could still be glimpsed at the giant pie that had fascinated Priestley when, as a child, he saw emanating from it a steady flow of “fine rich appetising steam.”  A wondrous, awe-inspiring sight it was to Priestley, the boy—and a wonder it was now to Priestley, the man, that, after all those years and after all those hours of bombing, the pie was still in its place, still in one piece, and still steaming away.

Mindful of the prosaic souls who needed to have their lessons spelled out for them, and who may well have resented as this “yapping about . . . pies and nonsense” at a time of acute crisis, Priestley added the reminder to “keep burnished the bright little thread of our common humanity,” a world in which that particular pie had “its own proper place.”

If only we had heard a voice like that during the dark days after 9/11, an opportunity seized by warmongers and profiteers.  If only there had been that sane and gentle voice, the raising of which in a time of terror is as difficult as pie.

Figured Speech: De-monstrating Lord Haw-Haw

When I picked up this slim and curious volume, Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen (1939), at an antiquarian bookstore in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, I was puzzled, to say the least.  I mean, I had heard about—and had listened to recordings of—the notorious Lord Haw-Haw, the fascist broadcaster whose role it was to demoralize the British, to make them turn against their own government by convincing them that to side with the so-called Third Reich was the safest, surest way to march forward.  Yet here was a book—written pseudonymously by a journalist calling himself Jonah Barrington and cartoonishly illustrated by an artist who went by the name of Fenwick—that turned propaganda into satire by lending form and features to a voice of terror that was infiltrating the home front.
Yes, it is a curious performance—a biographical act of deflating a windbag, of knocking the stuffing out of a nameless, disembodied operative whose dangerous air of mystery was just plain hot by the time Barrington had laughed off the threat by calling it “Haw-Haw.”  Those in Britain who, like Barrington, had caught the bizarre broadcasts from station Zeesen in Germany began to speculate about the speaker.  In the absence of evidence, Barrington created a character that, to him, had already “become real”; and out of the polemics that “nightly pollute[d]” the British air, the journalist set out to weave “silly fancies.”
“Let me make one point perfectly clear,” Barrington added:
Although Fenwick and I have use our imagination in building up the home life and background of Haw-Haw and his fellow propagandists, the actual speeches credited here to them are given verbatim—exactly as broadcast from the stations Hamburg, Cologne and Zeesen (D.J.A).
Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen defused a crisis by giving a ridiculous shape to uncertain things to come, by making preposterously concrete what had been potentially persuasive or at least dangerously ambiguous hearsay.  Filmmakers and journalists had parodied Nazi figures before—but the task of turning rhetoric into a figure of ridicule is a rather more complex strategy of counter-propaganda, especially since, in this case, print was rendering fictive what it had made definitive:
Haw-Haw in print needs stage directions, scene-setting and local colour.  And Fenwick needn’t thing he’s going to sit back and do nothing, either.  You want the best of Haw-Haw, and we give it to you—drawings and all.
Best or worst, readers of Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen were meant to get the better of him.

". . . he has an air": Floyd Gibbons, Wireless Adventurer

“Have voice, will travel.” That was the line my history of broadcasting professor Frank Kahn used to advertise his vocal services in the trade papers of yesteryear. And a voice for radio he did have, even though what he said and how he brought it across was appreciated by next to no one at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he ended up teaching in the cable TV age. Kahn was out of touch and, no doubt, keenly aware of it, incapable or unwilling though he was to do anything about it. “Have voice, will travel”? I mean, who among his students even got this sly reference to a time when the medium of radio was being challenged by sharp-shooting television? “Have voice, will travel.” The line came to mind when, some time ago, I read Douglas Gilbert’s biography Floyd Gibbons: Knight of the Air (1930). You don’t have to be out of touch to appreciate it, though it sure doesn’t hurt any if you catch up with someone whose fifteen minutes of fame (and airtime) was up nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
“There is no one in the world who can talk like Floyd Gibbons,” his biographer marvelled:

He speaks at a maximum speed of 245 words a minute and at an average speed of 216 words a minute and every word is clearly pronounced, completely enunciated, readily understood.  He dramatizes his speech, just as he dramatizes the news.

Gilbert, in turn, “dramatizes” Gibbons’s career.  Indeed, he melo-dramatizes it.  The biographer seems determined to turn the journalist into a swashbuckler and to imbue with romance what, on the air, was down-to-earth and up-to-date.

“He could, and often does, wear any sort of costume,” Gilbert says about Gibbons, “and when he does, he has an air.  It is a negligent and yet perfect air.” Shown with his signature patch (Gibbons lost one eye while, as a newspaper journalist, he was reporting from French battlefields during the First World War), the so-called “Headline Hunter,” then middle-aged, certainly has that “air” of romance about him.

According to Gilbert, Gibbons was through being a roving reporter at the age of forty.  His latest book, The Red Napoleon, which he was in the process of completing back in 1928, was a “prophesy of the next world war and the part radio was to play in it.”  To make such a prophesy, Gibbons consulted NBC president M. H. Aylesworth; and out of his luncheon with the radio executive there “developed the ‘Headline Hunter’ and the ‘Prohibition Poller’ and news gatherer that ma[de] the Literary Digest’s fifteen minutes over WJZ a radio ‘front page.’”

At 40 through with roving? Today at 42 he’s just begun—roaming for fifteen-million persons—their vicarious vagabond of the air, satisfying the gypsy lust of those of us who have never traveled.

“He’s radio’s knight errant,” Gilbert insists, “the listener’s passport to uncharted harbors; their open sesame to Cathay; their vista of a world whose only boundaries are the poles.”

For his audition, performed in front of an “unseen audience of Aylesworth and other NBC officials,” Gibbons recounted his “most exciting experience”—being aboard the Laconia when she was torpedoed.  The event had taken place over a decade earlier, on 25 February 1917; but Gibbons managed to bring it to life and to lend it urgency through the power of his voice. 

Back in 1917,

Gibbons had had a hunch, a newspaper man’s hunch when he took the Laconia.  He had been ordered to France as war correspondent.  He refused to go on the ship on which Von Bernsdorff [German ambassador to the US] was sailing because he knew no harm would come to that ship from the Germans.  He chose the Laconia, having a hunch she would be sunk and that he would escape and file a story of the sinking.

In the late 1920s, there was no indication that radio, too, was a ship under fire.  As Gilbert suggests, Gibbons would have gotten aboard anyway, had he known just how much danger lay ahead.  Not many people beside Gibbons imagined in 1930 that radio would become the medium most called upon for up-to-date accounts of warfare.  Had he been born a decade or two later—and not died in 1939—Gibbons would have gone straight into the thick of it and brought his spitfire delivery to a medium to which his voice was so adequately equipped.  Living too early, living too late? All we can hope is that our voices will travel some distance once we are convinced we have something to say . . . 

“. . . a dam’ good shake-up”: Death at Broadcasting House

“Snobbish nonsense!” says one shabbily dressed young Londoner to another as they observe a man in a starched shirt and dinner jacket enter Broadcasting House.  The man, they reckon, is an announcer about to go on the air, unseen yet meticulously groomed and attired.  At the sight of which pointless and paradoxical propriety they sneer: “That whole place wants a dam’ good shake-up.”  A “dam’ good shake-up.”  That, in a coconut shell (to employ the most sound-effective nut in the business of radio dramatics), is what Val Gielgud and his collaborator Holt Marvell (the fanciful penname of fellow broadcaster Eric Maschwitz) set out to perform in Death at Broadcasting House (1934), a murder mystery set in and temporarily upsetting the reliable, predictable and frightfully proper BBC.  Although I had know about it for quite some time, I just finished reading it;  turns out, it’s a “dam’ good” page-turner, and a compelling commentary on the marginality, the relative obscurity of radio dramatics besides.

“There’s not a drop of good red blood about the whole place.  Robots engaged in the retailing of tripe! That’s broadcasting!” one of the above sidewalk critics of the tried and generally trusted institution declares.  It is clear, though, that Gielgud and Maschwitz did not side with the two self-styled “communists.”  The authors were BBC employees and not about to stage a revolution.  The “shake-up” was strictly a matter of maracas, a means of making some noise for their own undervalued accomplishments rather than spilling the beans without which those maracas would become utterly useless as instruments of ballyhoo.

Sure, broadcasting plays—minutely timed, meticulously rehearsed and intensely scrutinized—were far more mechanic than any other form of dramatic performance.  Yet, as Gielgud insisted in one of his many articles on radio drama, “[i]n spite of [its] machine-like qualities” and “in spite of the lack of colour and applause, the work has a fascination of its own.” That the multitude for whom these performances were intended showed so little gratitude was frustrating to an actor-director like Gielgud, who sarcastically remarked a few years earlier that dismissive reviews in the press suggested, at least, that the broadcast play had “passed the first and most depressing stage of development—the stage of being entirely ignored.”  By 1934, it had clearly not advanced to a stage that could be deemed legitimate.

What better way to gainsay those naysayers than to spill some of that “good red blood” or to stir it properly and to make it run hot and cold by turns.  “A killing! In Broadcasting House, of all places! Good God!” is the response of General Sir Herbert Farquharson, the corporation’s fictional Controller.  He has just been informed that an actor was done away with during the production of a live broadcast.  “My god, sir,” the director of that play exclaims, “do you realize that everyone who heard that play must have heard him die? That makes it pretty unique in the annals of crime.”

That most folks tuning in thought little of it—that they believed it to be part of the drama—is owing to the fact that the murder was committed right at the moment when, according to the script, the character played by the victim was scheduled to breathe his last.  A crime at once prominent and inconspicuous—like most radio dramas, performed as they were without a studio audience.  After all, even the Controller, at the time of the murder, was attending a variety program staged in the specially designed Vaudeville Studio instead.

Death at Broadcasting House is the self-conscious performance of two radiomen, Gielgud and Maschwitz, fighting for the recognition that, for the most part, eludes those working behind the scenes—especially the folks behind the scenes of a largely invisible business.  Their book, as they so slyly state, was “dedicated impertinently … to those critics who persistently deny that the radio pay exists, has existed, or ever can exist.”  Radio plays existed, all right, but, for the most part, they died as soon as they were heard, if they were heard at all.

Unless, of course, they were blattnerphoned. “Blattnerphone?” the puzzled inspector exclaims.  “Yes,” the BBC’s dramatic director, Julian Caird, explains:

“It’s a way of recording a programme on a steel tape so that it can be re-transmitted.  We have to do a good deal of it for Empire work.” […]

“You mean we can hear that actual scene over again?”

“We can hear that scene,” said Caird, “not only over again, but over and over again.  As often as you like.  I wonder if the murderer thought of that?”

Probably not.  Unless he numbers among the initiated few, folks like Caird—and Gielgud—who have their fingers at the controls, conjurers who don’t mind revealing some of their tricks to demonstrate just how powerful they are.

“The curious thing about the case what that it was both extremely simply and extremely complicated,” the inspector wraps up the business of detection.  “It was extremely complicated only because it took place under very remarkable conditions—conditions which you wouldn’t find repeated anywhere else, and for which, of course, there was absolutely no precedent.”  The same applies to Gielgud and Maschwitz’s fiction. However witty and engaging, the whodunit is entirely conventional. It is the setting, the broadcasting studio, that makes it unusual.  The setting, thus, becomes the star of the production—a star without whose presence the show simply could not go on.

Indeed, the crime depends on the complexity of British radio production to be in need of detection.  In American broadcasting, by comparison, all actors gathered in the same studio, a congregation that would render the unobserved strangling of one of them not only improbably but impossible.  At the BBC, however, plays were produced using a multiple studios, a complex approach Gielgud’s stand-in explains thus:

[T]he chief reasons why we use several studios and not one, are two.  The first is that by the use of separate studios, the producer can get different acoustic effects for his scenes….  Secondly, the modern radio play depends for its “continuity” … upon the ability to ‘fade’ one scene at its conclusion into the next.  You can see at once that there must be at least two studios in use for these “fades” to be possible.  In an elaborate play, therefore, the actors require as many studios as the varying acoustics of the different scenes require, while … sound effects have a studio of their own, gramophone effects one more, and the orchestra providing the incidental music yet another separate one.

Anyone who has ever listened to an American radio play of the 1930s, such as the ones produced by the Columbia Workshop, knows that no such complex arrangements are needed for the effective use of multiple fades and changes in acoustics.  Death at Broadcasting House is a defense of the British system.  It turns the multi-studio approach into something to be marveled at—an arcane system fit for a mystery, a puzzle whose solution requires the expertise of the initiated and thus vindicates the existence of the men masterminding the business with their hands firmly on that most complex of all pieces of broadcasting equipment: the dramatic control panel, which, Gielgud enthused elsewhere, enabled the director “to move at will, both in time and space, as simply as if he were travelling on the fabled magic carpet, and to take his audience with him.”

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.

Sweetness and The Eternal Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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