Alternative (F)acts: Curating as Creative Response

Our Japanese ‘Merman’ made for a suitable poster boy.
Poster design by Neil Holland, based on an idea by Sarah Selzer
Once a year, with the help of the head curator of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, I stage an exhibition with a group of students who are enrolled in my undergraduate module “Curating an Exhibition.” The shows draw on the University’s vast collection of art and artefacts. The student curators are given a theme and set out to create a narrative by selecting objects in response to it. That is quite a challenge, considering that the exhibition is put together in just over three months from initial planning to display.
Past exhibitions include Untitled by UnknownQueer Tastes, and Matter of Life and Death.  This year, I was all set to use the colour red and its connotations as a theme . . . until the inauguration of Donald Trump and the ensuing dispute about the size of the audience made me see red in a different way.  This gave me the idea for a more urgent, topical show.
That show is Alternative Facts: Interpreting Works from the School of Art Collection. It opens on 22 May and will be on display until 29 September in one of the School of Art’s galleries in Aberystwyth, Wales.
The introductory panel explains the theme as follows:
The phrase ‘alternative facts’ is a recent addition to our vocabulary.  It has come to prominence in a political climate in which views and actions are shaped more by emotions than by reliable intelligence.  Reflecting this shift, Oxford Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ to be Word of the Year 2016.  And yet, alternative facts are as old as language itself.
The works in this exhibition range from a sixteenth-century woodcut to twenty-first century ceramics.   They make statements about religion and war, consumer culture and the media, humanitarian crises and the economy.  They contain references to historical figures such as Princess Diana and Nelson Mandela as well as fictional characters such as Mickey Mouse and Moby-Dick.

Using a current catchphrase as its premise, Alternative Facts explores the varied and conflicting functions of material culture: as representations of reality, as social commentary and as propaganda.  Political caricatures by James Gillray and Honoré Daumier are exhibited alongside documentarian images by photojournalist Erich Lessing.  Autobiographical and self-reflexive sculptures by Claire Curneen and Verity Newman are confronted with the hoax of a sea monster made in Japan.  Collectively, these objects raise questions about faith and falsehood, truth-telling and myth-making, authenticity, authority, and freedom of expression.

Alternative Facts also invites a closer look at the role of curators as trusted interpreters and reliable storytellers.  Our readings are not intended to be the last word. The gallery is a forum for discussion.
Curators: Tom Banks, Natalie Downes, Amber Harrison-Smith, Néna Marie Hyland, Brit Jackson, Frida Limi, Dean Mather, Brad Rees, Sarah Selzer, Magda Sledzikowska; with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design)

Cinegram No. 21 (Because It’s Some Holiday or Other)

It’s one of those days. I am reaching into my box of memorabilia, building paper bridges between the now and then. As I turn away from this little blue box—and from the scanner that transforms a printed image into a digital one—my eye catches another image, a framed poster on the wall of my study. And, once again, I become carried away, absorbed in the thoughts these two collector’s items—one British, one American—help to conjure, rather than in the appreciation of either. Besides, I have since retreated into our backyard to bask in the sunlight of a glorious spring afternoon. There’s time for all that, today. It is, after all, a holiday. Just what kind, though, I begin to wonder and allow the question to irritate me like ants running away with the picnic.

Now, you might say that a holiday by any other name smells just as sweet; but, if you ask me, “Bank Holiday” stinks. That is what the British insist on calling—or at any rate, are reduced to calling—some of their red letter days, including this one. Granted, considering the state of our financial system or individual finances, we might well be sitting round in a brown study, ruminating on our latter days in the red; but aren’t there any cultural cornerstones, historical milestones, or ancestral gravestones we ought to have our mind’s eye on?

We receive little encouragement from the dates as marked in our calendars. Here in Britain, we’ve got May Bank Holidays, and Spring Bank Holidays, and August Bank Holidays—and none of us are exactly laughing all the way to the nearest money-lending institution. Okay, we are not being pestered with notices demanding our immediate attention, but we don’t express our gratitude for not getting any bills by calling this a Post Office Holiday.

Not that all holidays are mere occasions for slipping into something comfortable or taking it off again at the beach; but we wouldn’t go so far, surely, as to declare Black Tuesday a day of observance by marking the anniversary of Wall Street laying an egg with a leisurely pancake breakfast. Sure, the banks are closed today; but is that what we are asked to celebrate?

How fortunate are those across the pond who can do as they please on Memorial Day. They may be decorating cakes instead of graves, but at least there is enough of a clue in the name to invite contemplation, encourage research or inspire gratitude. There is far more of a chance of drawing a blank if you’ve got nothing but “Bank” to draw on. If no consensus can be arrived at, if no joining of hands or thoughts is to be imposed, let any Bank Holiday become a blank one—and place on each celebrant the burden of making it meaningful . . .

“More Easily,” My Eye; or, Kaltenborn and the Dragon

“Education comes more easily through the ear than through the eye,” H. V. Kaltenborn declared back in 1926. He had to believe that, or needed to convince others of it, at least. After all, the newspaper editor had embarked on a new career that was entirely dependent on the public’s ability to listen and learn when he, as early as 1921, first stepped behind a microphone to throw his disembodied voice onto the airwaves, eventually to become America’s foremost radio commentator. Writing about “Radio’s Responsibility as a Molder of Public Opinion,” Kaltenborn argued education to be the medium’s “greatest opportunity.” And even though the opportunity seized most eagerly was advertising, some sixty American colleges and universities were broadcasting educational programs during those early, pre-network days of the “Fifth Estate.”

Kaltenborn reasoned that education by radio was superior to traditional correspondence courses since the aural medium could make up for the “imperfect contact between student and teacher” through “the appeal of voice and personality.” Among the subjects particular suited to radio he numbered “literature, oral English, foreign languages, history, and music,” but added that any class not requiring special “apparatus or laboratory work [could] be taught on the air.”

Not that a polyglot like H(ans) V(on), whose father was born in Germany, had any use for such on-air instructions, but a number of local stations (KFAB, Nebraska, and WMBQ, Brooklyn, among them) broadcast introductory courses in German during the early to mid-1930s. According to Waldo Abbot, who, in the 1930s, directed the University of Michigan’s educational broadcasts heard over WJR, Detroit, nearly four hundred stations in the US accepted foreign language programs, many of which were geared toward non-English communities, be they German, Albanian or Mesquakie. In 1942, as Variety radio editor Robert Landry pointed out, some two hundred local stations in the US were broadcasting in thirty languages other than English, at which time in history the efficacy of services in the public interest was being hotly debated.

Growing up in West Germany, I frequently tuned in to the English language Broadcasting Service of the British Forces (BFBS) and, lying in bed at night, twisted the dial in search of faraway international stations. Yet as much as the chatter of different, distant voices intrigued me, I was not so much enlightened as I was enchanted; and rather than translating what I heard, I was transported by it. I may have had an ear for language, but whatever came my way by way of the airwaves back then was mostly in one ear and out of the other.

Even when language poses no barrier to understanding, I do not assimilate spoken utterances as readily as written words. I was raised in the age of television and, to some degree, by that medium. So insurmountable was the visual bias that I have never been able entirely to rely on my ear when it comes to taking even the simplest instructions. I discovered early on, for instance, that it was difficult for me to write down a number taken from dictation; to this day, I struggle to piece together words that are being spelled out for me. My chirographic transcriptions of speech are often incomplete or frustratingly inaccurate.

Yes, I have long been keenly aware of the pig’s ear that nature made of my senses. I learned that those cartilaginous funnels couldn’t be relied upon to make, let alone fill, a purse, silken or otherwise. My head being thoroughly porcine, I nonetheless chose radio as the subject for my doctoral study—if only to give my eyes an earful.

If only education came “more easily” to me “through the ear than through the eye,” now that I am once again putting my ear for language to the test. I’ve been living in Wales for over five years now, but, insofar as I had occasion to mingle with the locals, I have communicated exclusively in English. Contrary to a travel guide one of my German friends showed me upon visiting, Welsh is by no means a language in extremis, even if its rejuvenescence is largely owing to the resuscitative measures of nationalist politics. Taking our recent move from a remote cottage in the country to a house in town as an incentive, I decided to grab the red dragon by its forked tongue at last. I started taking classes. “Dwi ‘n dysgu Cymraeg.”

To augment my weekly lessons, I am listening to recordings of the BBC’s Catchphrase program, a late-20th-century radio series designed to introduce English speakers to the Welsh language. While it is a comfort to me that fleeting speech is reproducible at the touch of a button or key, I am still finding it difficult to take in and recall what I am hearing, particularly as I am being asked to learn “parrot fashion,” to play and replay by ear without being given a table or chart that would allow me to discern a grammatical pattern. Much of what I have heard still sounds to me what the Germans call Kauderwelsch—or plain gibberish.

Though I am not quite licked yet, the Welsh ddraig keeps sticking out its tongue to make a mockery of my efforts. It’s no use slaying it by ear. I simply wasn’t born—nor am I Kaltenborn—to do it.

Related writings
“‘. . . from hell to breakfast’: H. V. Kaltenborn Reporting”
“‘Alone Together’: A Portrait of the Artist as an Artist’s Spouse”

The “crazy coon” and the “highvoiced fag”: Jello and the Language of Revolution

Language is to me one of the main pulls of the no longer popular, be it American radio comedy of the 1940s or the serial novels of the Victorian era. That is to say, the absence of the kind of language we refer to as “language” whenever we caution or implore others to mind theirs. Mind you, all manner of “language” escapes me in moments of physical or mental anguish; but, once I hit the keyboard, whatever hit me or made me hit the roof is being subjected to a process of Wordsworthian revision. You know, “emotion recollected in tranquility.” If the revisions come off, what remains of the anger or hurt that prompted me to write has yet the kind of medium rare severity that renders expressed thought neither raw nor bloodless. No matter how many words have been crossed out, the recollection still gets across whatever made me cross in the first place, and that without my being double-crossed by lexical recklessness.

Writing with restraint is not a matter of adopting certain mannerisms to avoid being plain ill-mannered. Obscurity is hardly preferable to obscenity. The trick is to create worthwhile friction without resorting to diction unworthy of the cause—without using the kind of words that just rub others the wrong way. I was certainly rubbed so when, researching old-time radio, I brushed up on Amiri Baraka’s Jello (1970), no doubt the angriest piece of prose ever to be written about the American comedian Jack Benny (seen here, dressing up as Charley’s Aunt).

Jello was penned at a time when many Americans who grew up listening to Benny retreated into nostalgia rather than face, accept, let alone support the radical cultural changes proposed or, some felt, threatened by the civil rights movement. Baraka confronted this longing for the so-called good old days with a farce in which Benny’s much put upon valet Rochester refuses the services the public had long—and largely unquestioningly—come to expect of the well-loved character.

What ensues is a riot—albeit not one of laughs—as Baraka’s “postuncletom” Rochester lashes out at his former master-employer and insists on forcefully taking the money out of which he believes to have been cheated during the past thirty-five years (according to Baraka’s rewriting of broadcasting history). Having found that “loot” in a bag of Jello, Rochester leaves Benny, Mary Livingstone, and Benny regular Dennis Day to their “horrible lives!”—piled up on the floor like the corpses in a Jacobean revenge tragedy.

The plot of Jello is older than its message—the call to rise against the forces that made, made tame or threaten to unmake us; and the only startling aspect of Baraka’s play is the aggressive tone in which that message is delivered, delivered, to be sure, to none but those already alive and receptive to his rallying call.

“No, Mary,” Baraka’s version of Benny insists, “this is not the script. This is reality. Rochester is some kind of crazy nigger now. He’s changed. He wants everything.” The language alone signals that we are well beyond the grasp of the titular sponsor, beyond the code adopted in the summer of 1939 by the National Association of Broadcasters, according to which “no language of doubtful propriety” was to pass the lips of anyone on the air.

As is the case in all attempts at policing language, the underlying thought—the unsaid yet upheld—might be more dubious still; and when Baraka picks up the word “nigger,” he gives expression to a hostility that could not be voiced but was played out in and reinforced by many of the networks’ offerings. Indefensible, however, is his use of equally virulent language like “stupid little queen” and “highvoiced fag” when referring to tenor Dennis Day or “radio-dikey,” as applied to Mary Livingstone. Staging revolution, Baraka is upstaged by revulsion. He has mistaken the virulent for the virile.

In those days and to such a mind, “fag” was just about the most savage term in which to couch one’s rejection of the unproductive and the non-reproductive alike. It was a monstrous word demonstrative of the fear of emasculation. It is that fear—and that word—with which power and dignity was being stripped from those whose struggle for equality was just beginning during the days following the Stonewall Riots of 28 June 1969, from those whose fight was impeded by a fear greater and deeper even than racism.

Now, I’m no slandered tenor; but I have been affronted long enough by such verbiage to be tossing vitriol into the blogosphere, to be venting my anger or frustration in linguistically puerile acts of retaliation. If I pick up those words from the dust under which they are not quite buried, I do so to fling them back at anyone using them, whether mindlessly or with design—but especially at those who inflict suffering in the fight to end their own. Our protests and protestations would be more persuasive by far if only we paid heed to the words we should strike first.

Related writings
“A Case for Ellery Who?: Detecting Prejudice and Paranoia in the Blogosphere”
“Martin Luther Kingfish?: Langston Hughes, Booker T. Washington, and the Problem of Representation”
“Jack Benny, Urging Americans to Keep Their Wartime Jobs, Catches Rochester Moonlighting in Allen’s Alley”

In a Cornfield West of Denver, Calling Hogs

It is almost “like a bride’s outfit”; in it, there’s “something old, something new, something borrowed”—although rarely anything “blue.” That is how media critic Gilbert Seldes described the language of broadcasters, the jargon used by those behind the scenes of television, with which the American public was just getting acquainted (rather than walking down the aisle). Seldes’s remark can be found in Radio Alphabet (1946), a lexicon more concerned, at the title implies, with a poor relation of television. Let us say, a wealthy and powerful relation that was about to be abandoned by her suitors and cheated out of her fortunes.

Despite its inclusion of TV terminology, the Alphabet was compiled at a time when radio was at the height of its influence on American culture, shortly before it was reduced to playing the nation’s jukebox and serving as a source of patter. It not only spouted words—it begot them. Hence the publication of Radio Alphabet, the latest addition to my library of books on broadcasting (also available online). Before it, along with everything else, is being shoved into a box, awaiting a new home, I am going to pick it up and . . . have a word.

Radio Alphabet is prefaced by “an introductory program”—a foreword as broadcast script featuring the voices of many important figures in charge of operations at the Columbia Broadcasting System. Among them, Douglas Coulter, vice-president of the network; William B. Lodge, director of general engineering; William C. Gittinger, vice-president in charge of sales; William C. Ackerman, director of the network’s reference department; Elmo C. Wilson, director of the research department; Howard A. Chinn, chief audio engineer for CBS; and radio drama director Earle McGill. All of them are announced and quizzed by a “Voice”—a sort of mouthpiece for broadcasting (or CBS, at any rate).

Like any good announcer, the “Voice” knows how to sell:

Not since Gutenberg’s press has any instrument devised by man added more promise to the dimensions of man’s mind, or more altered the shape of his thinking.  The press enabled man to speak his mind to man through a code of letters on paper: radio enables man to speak his mind by living voice.  This expansion, under the somewhat imperative tempo of the radio art, has forced up a new, raw, essential working vocabulary which is steadily spilling over into wider understanding and usage.

Radio’s new operating tongue speaks now and then with fresh if familiar economy and color.  In the air a pilot on the beam is on his course; on the air an actor or director or conductor on the beam is making his most effective use of the microphone.  Bite off, bend the needle, west of Denver, soap opera, dead air, old sexton . . . these are new and useful and happy twists of the infinitely flexible mother tongue.

By now, the items in the Alphabet are largely useless; the unhappy twist is that radio’s tongue is tied, its jargon obsolete. However vivid the expressions in this glossary, consulting it makes you aware not only of the life of the medium but of the mortality of words. Although many of them linger in our vocabulary, they are figures of speech whose meanings have become arcane, whose uses are imprecise. These days, for instance, “soap opera” denotes melodrama, regardless of its financing or commercial purposes. It’s an expression on life support, a ghost of a word removed from the machine that created it.

Turning the pages of this handsome little volume is not unlike tuning in to those old programs and putting one’s impressions about them into words. There is that sense of being superannuated and abstruse; but there is also the thrill of rediscovery and the joy of being, in a word, conversant—at least with the subject.

So, what does it mean to have been in a “cornfield,” “west of Denver,” “calling hogs”? I’ll let the Radio Alphabet explain it all:

CORNFIELD.  A studio setup employing a number of standing microphones.

WEST OF DENVER.  Technical troubles which can’t be located.

HOG CALLING CONTEST.  A strenuous commercial audition for announcers possessed of pear-shaped tones of voice.

Old-time Radio Primer: K Stands for Knowledge

Well, I don’t know. About my last poll, I mean. With this survey, the responses to which are captured below, I wanted to raise questions about the ways in which the mass media reflect our everyday lives or fail to do so. Can we rely on the media to represent—to talk to and tell of—those who are exposed to them? Will future generations watch archive footage of Big Brother or Desperate Housewives in order to learn about life in America during these early years of the 21st century? To what extent can popular culture serve as a time capsule by means of which scholars yet unborn might presume to enter our minds and mine our psyche?

The question of representation through media is of interest to anyone who, in some aspect of his or her existence, is not or cannot conform with the norms propagated and enforced by them. To anyone, in short. We all have qualities that, we sense, marginalize us, be it a particular of our physical being, our mentality, or our upbringing. Whether simplistic or symbolic, popular culture cannot reflect all that renders us distinctive. It is apt to alienate us at times, to create moments in which we do not feel that we are being considered or addressed, moments in which we resent being inaccurately depicted or altogether ignored.

Such instances do not merely affirm our individuality; they make apparent that those creating popular culture have a vested interest in shaping us in their image. Yet to demand that media be more sensitive to our differences may result in their leveling, an insistence on universality that makes popular culture even more generic. Political correctness, which is largely the invention of litigious societies, accomplishes no less.

However bland its offerings may strike those whose senses have been dulled by long exposure to pictures that leave little to the imagination, radio in the pre-television age (the 1930s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s) was not nearly as concerned about offending minorities as television is today. It was indifferent to millions whom sponsors did not consider relevant, either because those millions were unlikely to become potential consumers of the products advertised or because their business was not deemed desirable as it clashed with the image in light of which advertisers wanted goods and services to be received.

It does not follow, however, that we cannot glean knowledge about American life from recordings of soap operas, comedy programs, and thrillers. The soap operas of the 1930s may drive home anxieties about the depression; 1940s radio comedies will tell you much about life on the homefront; and the thrillers of the 1950s create more or less readily translatable scenarios of fear, prejudice and hatred during the McCarthy era.

Propaganda and advertising, it is true, were meant to trigger anticipated reactions, even though the reactions of those tuning in can never be entirely predicted, which, in turn, can make the most generic program highly personal to anyone listening. Yet there is nothing intrinsic in the recording of such programs that gives us access to those very personal responses. The theater of the mind is still open to us today; but how about the mind of anyone else staging productions in this legendary venue?

Faced with the challenge of tracing real lives in presumably faceless escapism, it might help to conceive of popular culture not so much as a reflector of everyday life but as its generator; not, to modify the old and meaningful analogy, as a shallow reflecting pool, but as a radiating sun. Programs create their audiences, in a real and literal sense. And while not all minds are quite so cooperative, the sun of these broadcasts nonetheless captures the shadows of those who were cast or outcast by this light.

Instead of listening for echoes of those who once sat before their receivers, we might discover them in the act of reception. All it takes is the imagination and empathy of today’s listeners to turn indistinct outlines into responsive minds as distinctive as we believe our own to be. To consider chiefly as occasions to determine, dream of or deride otherness (as historic, nostalgic, or camp) diminishes the opportunity of reading with an understanding ear.

This is by no means my last word on the subject of radio as a depot of cultural knowledge or a dispenser of knowledge about culture. As these contradictory reflections suggest, I don’t have any definitive answers to the question I posed; if ever I develop them, I hope to have the humility to become suspicious of my simplifying mind. As always, I prefer to keep circulating ideas rather than put a full stop to the inquiry.

Old-time Radio Primer: J Stands for Juvenile

It’s pretty much a four-letter word. It is twice as long because it does double duty. It either suggests trouble or triviality, lack of sophistication or abject recklessness. It spells “no good” or bespeaks those who are up to no less than that. The word “juvenile,” I mean. And yet, most of our everyday diversions and the mass-marketing of such—the distinctions between which efforts are less clear now than ever—are being suited to those who supposedly suit the description. To be sure, it is the label “mature audience” or “adult content” that nowadays dangles from what is truly “juvenile” in popular culture: the brash, the unabashed, the verbal or visual provocation that substitutes for stimulating thought—anything, in short, that caters to our desire for instant self-gratification.

Much of what is still being remembered or perpetuated about the aureate days of wireless aurality in America (the 1930s to mid-1950s) is being thought of as “juvenile.” Indeed, it was widely regarded—and frequently denounced—as such even then. “What have you gentlemen done with my child?” protested Lee De Forest, the inventor whose Audion tube brought radio into being. “You have debased this child,” he railed against broadcasters back in those days after the end of the Second World War, when attacks against commercial radio were as common as the entertainment it presented.

“You have made him a laughingstock to intelligence, surely a stench in the nostrils of the gods of the ionosphere.” Instead of reaching maturity, radio had been “resolutely kept to the average intelligence of thirteen years,” as though those assuming charge of broadcasting believed that the “majority of listeners” had “only moron minds.” However sweeping and simplistic in his attack, De Forest realized at least that “juvenile” was nothing more—and nothing less—than a construct, an assumed average created for the sake of commerce and mass-marketing; it was not truly representative of American life in any of its stages.

It is no wonder that one of the words most often associated with “juvenile” is “delinquency.” After all, those who attempt to deprive us of our childhood because they believe it pays to have us yearn for adult life are closely allied with those who punish us when we find ourselves unable to buy or refuse to buy into the concept of buying whatever is being pushed our way. I, for one, am highly suspicious of those who wax nostalgic about the imaginary age of innocence—the years during which we are prey to commerce and corruption without yet sensing the state of our vulnerability, the days that are deemed precious by virtue of being irretrievable.

Today, serials like The Lone Ranger and episodic thrillers like The Shadow are being recalled either fondly or disdainfully, but by and large patronizingly. Future generations tend to trivialize the past by cherishing samples of bygone follies that are contrasted with or judged in light of present—and allegedly less primitive—diversions. The realization that we haven’t learned much from history or that we are altogether incapable of learning is perhaps too difficult to endure without the laughter of ridicule, unless such suspicions are being foiled by the benevolent smile of nostalgia.

Very little is gained by such approaches to popular culture, other than putting a performance in what is argued to be its proper place by putting it down as artistically inconsequential, or by elevating it to something incomparable and thereby rendering it historically nil. Such pretensions are of no assistance in our appreciation of history or art; nor do they make for insightful and engaging criticism. To call something “juvenile” means to render it either immune to criticism or unworthy of it.

Granted, I am getting too old to be playing the juvenile in the melodrama of life; but it is not out of a sense of envy or regret that I resent the term. Playing with what was once playing on the radio, I detest being reduced to a statistical average only because much of what was staged in the theater of the mind was conceived with such a construct in mind. I won’t turn a mythical thirteen whenever I take in an old radio program. And if I can’t manage to listen intelligently to such “juvenile” entertainment, I’d much rather be properly childish about it.

Old-time Radio Primer: I Stands for Imagine

This is one of those lazybones, slow coach, watch-your-toe-nails-grow afternoons. A moment of ease and drowsy repose, a moment so slight as to be of no matter, so carefree as to be of no consequence. A now to outweigh any later, to balance any yesterdays on a scale of time perfectly still. It is an instant fit for nothing—which is just what I intend to do. Am I doing nothing? Are not my senses responsive to the rays of the sun, my skin receptive to the cooling breeze, and my ears alive to the slightest of sounds—sounds so soothing as to render highly unlikely the chance of this missive being shared before evening? I might not get anything done at present; but, as hard as it has been for me to put to sleep the guilt a Calvinism cut down to a strict work ethics and a suspicion of non-manual labor taught me to suffer, doing naught and doing not as some think one ought is a naughtiness that can produce a host of something—a host ready to accommodate a multitude of guests in the open inn of my imagination.

“Imagine”! It’s another word for my old-time radio primer (begun here)—and certainly one made for the airwaves, the medium that minds beyond matter. What does it mean, to imagine? According to Aristotle, it is the mental reproduction of sensory impressions. Does it follow that the imagined is inferior to the real, a mere copy of an original? Not a fruitful train of thought, perhaps, this levelling of mental streams with the concrete of matter-of-factness. Besides, you won’t get far with the concept of originality in , which borrowed so freely that I might as well have let “I” stand for “influence.”

The notion that imagination is reproduction has caused artists of centuries past to prefer the word “fancy” as denoting invention, rather than imitation. Listening to the radio, however, imagination seems the more appropriate term, as much as 1930s theorist Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007) insisted on freeing sound from the business of substituting for the other senses not engaged during the act of lending an ear.

Listeners of radio plays do not so much invent worlds as image them forth with the sonic inventory ordered by the writer and supplied by the producer. The furnished rooms, unlike those shown in pictures, on screens large and small, may differ greatly, according to the vocabulary, experience, and preferences of the audience.

Of course, associations can be more profound than the image of door being produced by oil-starved hinges. That sound may also produce thoughts of approaching danger, of impending entrapment, of what’s behind and what might lie ahead. On this day, 1 July, in 1954, for instance, Escape invited listeners to conceive of a “Dark Wall” and a closed door behind which was concealed a “beautiful woman whom you must find before she meets her death.” The rooms, after all, are not just set up to be furnished in accordance with a more or less clearly defined blueprint, to be inhabited by a set of characters. Within these dark walls, there also flourished doubts and wonderment, sorrow and fear.

To get behind that dark wall and sneak through the door takes about as much effort as closing ones eyelids, which makes listening to a play for radio the ideal activity for an idle moment like this—as long as the mind’s eye is ready to adjust to the luminescence of the imagined. Pardon me, while I wander off . . .

Old-time Radio Primer: H Stands for Hiatus

Well, how are you feeling today? According to one British study, 23 June is the happiest day of the year. Montague and I were perfectly content, playing and dozing in the garden and going for walks along the lane. Perhaps, the folks down in the nearby town of Aberystwyth were even happier last Tuesday, when they had several thousand pounds thrown at them on the street by a stranger who just wanted to “spread a little sunshine.” Apparently, this local story had already travelled around the world (both my sister and my best friend in Germany had heard of it) before it came to my ears, which, no doubt, were too busy picking up the sounds of .

As grateful as I am for ready access and instant replay, recording technology can render our present-day listening quite unlike the experience of tuning in back then. It is difficult to get a sense of a weekly broadcasting schedule, of certain parts of the day being associated with particular programs, of the anticipation of their airing and the space such periodically scheduled events occupied in the minds of the audience in the interim.

To be sure, the middle of June would have been meant a rather prolonged wait for the next tune-in opportunity. It was during this month (rather than May, as on US television nowadays) that most of the crowd-pleasing drama series and comedy-variety shows went on their summer hiatus. Hiatus, from the Latin hiare, meaning “to yawn.”

As I suggested a while ago, the off-season in radio had initially been a response to technical difficulties of broadcasting during the long, bright days of the year. Now, a hiatus can be a precarious wait, which is why I’d never attempt one for broadcastellan. The question is: will the audience greet the news of your return with excitement, or a resounding yawn? That is, will your show go on even in its absence, circulating in the minds of the multitude? Not, perhaps, if your season finale is as disastrous as the second one of Desperate Housewives.

To be sure, broadcasters did not shut down the microphones and close the studios for the duration. Before resorting to reruns, which became customary in the 1950s, they scheduled replacement programs, some of which, like the Forecast series, were designed to test the potential of untried fare. It wasn’t all filler during those summer months. The Mercury Theater, for instance, was first heard in July 1938. Besides, a prestigious timeslot, one occupied by the Lux Radio Theatre demanded high-profile or at least adequate replacements. One of the most highly regarded programs to have its premiere during the summer was the thriller anthology Escape.

On this day, 23 June, in 1950, Escape offered the western melodrama “Sundown,” the “story of a boy who never owned anything . . . but a gun.” The cast was headed by Barton Yarborough, best remembered today for his portrayal of Texan daredevil Doc Long in Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery serial. Doc and his pals did not break for the summer; they kept audiences suspended, from one cliffhanger to the next. On the very day Yarborough was heard in “Sundown,” another Doc Long (played by Jim Boles) set out for a new adventure in “The Snake with the Diamond Eyes.”

There was time as well for summer schooling. On this day in 1957, Edward R. Murrow introduced the listeners of the CBS Radio Workshop to a word far more ominous than “hiatus,” precisely because it denotes a lingering presence:

A new word has been added to our ever increasing vocabulary. It’s a small word, dressed in fear. To pronounce, not very difficult. To envision, staggering. This scientific word may well become the most important in all languages and to all peoples. It is pronounced “fallout.” “Fallout.” Rather a simple word to describe so much. ‘Fallout.’ Radiation withheld by quantities of atmosphere that may eventually descend to pillage, burn, kill not only you and me, but the scores of generations unborn. Quite a word, “fallout.”

Countering the politics of terror, Murrow suggested that this lexical novelty could also denote the harvest of knowledge, as “words, thoughts, ideas,” withheld in an “atmosphere of ignorance,” eventually descend on future generations. Perhaps, this intellectual fallout is rather too gradual and the radiation too slight. With atomic energy once again on the political agenda in Britain, and threats of nuclear warfare not quite a thing of the past, little seems to have been learned from past horrors.

I wish political leaders could be forced to go on hiatus to make room for summer replacements—especially since some of them seem as perverse as that ill-treated teenager in Escape, seeking retribution beyond reason in an atmosphere of fear and its inevitable fallout. To the restless mind, “hiatus” can mean “pause for thought.”

Old-time Radio Primer: G Stands for Gravel Box and Glass Crasher

Well, where to begin? Picture this, if you will. You decided to write a play that will never be seen; a play that will be imagined rather than staged; a play that will be taken in as sound alone. In short, something—some immaterial thing—that used to be called radio drama. Audio drama will suffice as a name for it, even though other, more grandiose terms have been suggested. Having studied the history of such performances for years, I might as well try my hands, my ears, and my mind at them. The question remains; where to begin?

This is what I am pondering as I sit here in the relative still of our garden, where life plays itself out in a display of colors, a cool breeze and the rays of the sun stroking my bare skin, and (to borrow from Tennyson) the air stirring to the “murmur of innumerable bees.” Now, audio plays can conjure any number of concrete images and intimate sensations; they may trigger memories of feelings—or desires for them—and thus bring them about. Audio drama. It is certainly not all sound.

Yet sound is the non-matter with which to do the conjuring. And to me, audio play has to be about sound and of sound, rather than a verbal exchange place, sequences of lines uttered and interrupted or augmented by non-verbal noise and moments of silence. I don’t hold with those critics who think of radio drama primarily as an oral medium. It is, more inclusively, aural.

Too often sounds have been relegated to the business of supporting a drama unfolding as dialogue or narration—of setting scenes, creating backdrops, or, at best, enhancing its atmosphere. The sounds of opening or closing doors, for instance, create the space in which characters are heard to move, as do those steps on rocks-strewn earth produced by sound(wo)man playing in the “gravel box.”

A gravel box, you see, is a container filled with pebbles, a box which used to simulate the ground on which the dramatis personae of the air were heard to tread. Are bodies immaterial without such sandbox sounds? Or does it suffice, after all, to rely on the voice box alone.

Then there are in radio dramatics those stirring noises of shots and sirens, crashing waves or smashed windows. There is the glass crasher, for example, which, as the name suggests, is a device used for creating the sound of breaking glass. G, in this entry in my old-time radio primer, does not stand for gadget or gimmick.

Sounds have a life beyond live support, beyond adding color or concrete markers of space, which merely enhance what is often already expressed in words: “Don’t you just love the ocean?” (biz: sound of waves); “Isn’t it romantic out here in under the stars?” (cue the crickets); “What are you pointing that gun at me for, you thug?” (insert shots here).

To appropriate another line of poetry (from Pope, this time), must sound seem an “echo to the sense”? Must it make sense? Must it be echoing something else? Does it always suggest a body, some certain corporeal entity responsible for such noise? Must sound be a relationship, a communicating passageway between one hearing and one sounding, traceable to an originating source which gives it meaning, as footsteps getting louder might mean “danger” if tracked down to the body of an approaching adversary or “the promise of pleasure” if traced to the form of a lover?

In other word, is sound an echo of the reverberating body producing it? The question, to be sure, is older than the wireless; it is as ancient as the atmosphere and the dark of night begetting such thoughts. Consider this exchange from Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Alley (1818), which investigates the relationship between (re)sonance and reception, between sounding and sounding out:

“Nonsense, sir,” interrupted Mr. Glowry. “That is not at all like the sound I heard.” 

“But, sir,” said Scythrop, “a key-hole may be so constructed as to act like an acoustic tube, and an acoustic tube, sir, will modify sound in a very remarkable manner. Consider the construction of the ear, and the nature and causes of sound. The external part of the ear is a cartilaginous funnel.” 

“It wo’n’t do, Scythrop. There is a girl concealed in this tower, and find her I will.”

Should I lead the ear to that concealed someone? Or will my play be all architecture, tower and bells, without a body in sight? We shall hear . . .