Old-time Radio Primer: F Stands for Free

The dictionaries only manage to define it by telling us what it is not. It is such a troublesome little word, yet so attractive. “Free,” I mean. It has a lot to do with commercial broadcasting—the wireless with strings attached—which is why I am taking the liberty to include it in my old-time radio primer. The state of being “free” is generally thought of as the absence of some restricting force or entity. However positive, it is a want we are wont to capture by negation. You are free to skip this line, by the way, unless, of course, you are somehow compelled to read on. Am I encroaching on your liberties by subjecting you to yet another sentence, by sentencing you to yet another subject? Go on, it is complimentary. And considering that wars are being fought over it, it is hardly a matter of no matter.

“Free” is so overused, misused and corrupted a lexical commodity that you have every reason to grow suspicious of anything offered on such terms—particularly that tautological fallacy of the “free gift” (with every purchase, no less). Eventually, you begin to wonder whether a word that only exists as an opposite, and exists only to be turned into that opposite, has any meaning at all.

If being free is the sensation of doing or being without, then freedom might very well be poverty, deprivation, and thraldom. Even if it is understood to mean doing or being without something on your own accord, you might want to take a moment of your spare time to consider how did you arrive at that accord, that agreement, without being under some forceful influence, and thus not free?

Here is the obligatory verse. It, too, is free this time:

“Free” is what looks good . . .
because you like the sound of it.
“Free” is what tastes good . . .
even if it smells funny.
“Free” is what feels good . . .
although it makes no sense at all.

In America, radio was being touted as a purveyor of gratis entertainment. And gratis deserves gratitude. You didn’t have to drop a nickel into the machine for every song or program you wanted to hear, even though the machine itself was no mean crystal set, but one of those expensive new console models that looked so nice in the advertisement and, the salesperson said, would fit so well into your living room. After all, you wouldn’t want to look cheap when handing out treats to your important dinner guests (the business kind, who could do something for you).

How comforting the thought that the entertainment at least was being paid for by someone who was also charitable enough to take care of all those who toiled and performed for your amusement over at the broadcasting studio, those big and expensive-looking facilities like the ones over at Radio City, which you’d love to visit some day, if only you had enough time or money for a trip to New York.

No need to get sarcastic. You are under no obligation to tune in tomorrow, as the announcer keeps insisting, although you sure would like to know whether Superman, “bombarded by livid bolts of atomic energy, and buried now for almost an hour,” will manage to save Metropolis or whether that “girl from a mining town in the West” can really “find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman”—especially now that she was being threatened by Lord Henry’s evil twin. Yes, you could turn it off. The freedom of it!

Sure, they’ve all got something to sell. That’s nothing, if hours of carefree listening can be had for just that—nothing. That’s why Jack Benny could make you laugh on the Lucky Strike Program last night and Nelson Eddy sang for you and the Chase and Sanborn people (the thought of which reminds you to get coffee at the market tomorrow—and to make it Sanka, just to show them)! It’s a free market.

So what if those who offered this free service really took it from you in the first place and used it for their own purposes! So what if they expected a little something—or rather a lot—in return for taking over the airwaves you quite forgot were free. You could always write a letter and complain, if it got out of hand. That was your right, as a taxpayer.

Perhaps we ought to remove the word from our vocabulary. It seems so much easier than striving for something so elusive. Feel free to differ.

Old-time Radio Primer: E Stands for Escape

We are all in pursuit of it, at least for as long as we can get away with getting away from it all. Escape, I mean. It is the art of not facing facts—or whatever we call the limitations we are conditioned to regard as reality. In its figurative sense, “escape” is synonymous with the quest for pleasure, guilty or otherwise. A vast industry is devoted to the manufacture of ready retreats. Catering to our desire for vicarious thrills, sly entrepreneurs are making us pay for the investments in our future we cannot bring ourselves to make. Before television ran away with our imagination, radio was the medium most often relied upon as a gateway to worlds beyond our own. “Escape” being such a prominent aspect of radio culture, it is just the word to follow “Drama” in our radio primer, today’s entry into which opens with an ode to the dial remedial:

The stove ran out of fire,
You’re out of dimes to scrape.
The companies won’t hire,
It’s taxes and red tape. 

Of politics you tire,
though journalists go ape.
Why wallow in the mire
Squeeze wrath from your last grape? 

No need for Brokenshire
To say we’re in bad shape.
What you want from the wire-
less—Flash!—It’s more escape.

Sure, the enterprise of creating diversions has had its share of detractors. So-called “escapism”—the programmatic avoidance of the problematic—has often been denounced as a rather dirty and shameful business. A racket akin to operating a beach resort for ostriches, it encourages a head-in-sand approach to life’s challenges, an attitude that is looked down upon as not merely foolish but as socially and morally irresponsible. During the Second World War, producers of radio entertainment were expected to temper their leisure time offers with timely reminders of the tasks at hand: there was a war on, which meant scaling down consumption, serving the community, and staring the consequences of caving in or giving up straight in the lazy eye.

Any kind of escapist fare can be peddled as essential by being labelled “uplifting” or “morale-boosting”; but no radio program could entirely escape doing propaganda duty as outlined by the governmental Office of War Information. In the summer of 1945, the years of civic service and moderation came to an end at last. Bold and brash, network radio of the mid- to late-1940s—roughly the interlude between V-J Day and the Korean War—cashed in on the spirit of post-war consumerism. As one of the popular novels of the day, Frederic Wakeman’s The Hucksters, drove home, it was a time of profits and promotion. If Americans needed a break, it might as well be a commercial one.

Broadcasters turned the pursuit of happiness into opportunities to get something for nothing on newly developed giveaway programs and into occasions for fast getaways on a growing number of thriller and adventure series. The creators of Escape (1947-54) even supplied specific reasons for tuning out the everyday. Its melodramas were prefaced by an announcer’s inquiry whether tuners-in were “Fed up with the housing shortage” or “Worried about the United Nations,” references to a troubling reality that were followed by a straightforward “Want to get away from it all?” and a hard-to-resist proposal: “We offer you . . . Escape!”

On this day, 2 June, in 1950, Escape presented a play that suggested the dangers of mass hypnotism, the very mind-numbing of which radio itself was being accused. In “Mars Is Heaven,” adapted from a story by Ray Bradbury, falling for the pleasant and failing to question those who promise it, getting away from earthly cares and going out of one’s way to find contentment elsewhere, rather than making an effort to strive for it at home, are elusive and delusional actions demonstrated to have disastrous consequences.

In the search for routes of escape, the most neglected one is the way leading away from such impulses. Escape, after all, is valued by what we get out of it, which amounts to nothing if we can’t get out of it at all.

Old-time Radio Primer: D Stands for Drama

Most of us can do without it. In our everyday lives, at least, where it strikes us as exasperating, discomfiting and generally inopportune. “Drama,” I mean, which follows “Crooner” in this, my Norman Corwin inspired “Radio Primer.” If encountered outside the theater and within the bounds we think of as our reality—a dichotomy well worth questioning—drama may be defined as any of those interludes during which other people insist on making a scene and drawing us into the action. We’d much rather leave those moments of emotional turmoil to the professionals, who get paid and applauded for enacting them.

There is plenty of drama going on elsewhere, I am pleased to report. After Wednesday night’s great evening of spectacle, taking in Gormenghast, I am looking forward now to Athol Fugard’s The Island, which is being staged at the same local venue next Tuesday. And only yesterday we got our hands on tickets to see Kevin Spacey at London’s Old Vic in A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill (whose Ah, Wilderness! I discussed only a few days ago). Now, that Moon won’t rise until the fall. For more immediate drama, for private screenings and stages set under my direction, I’ve got the radio. So, what can those listening to old-time radio drama expect? Let me put it to you in the obligatory “Primer” rhyme:

Epics in a digest,
And jokes for the New Deal,
Thrills to fill the war chest,
And ample time for spiel. 

Interludes commercial,
And bowdlerized O’Neill,
And nothing controversial,
Since that makes sponsors reel. 

Broadway for the homebound,
And hoaxes sounding real,
And living rooms turned fairground—
That’s radio’s appeal.

This, at least, is why old-time radio appeals to me. Of course, radio drama is still being produced; and however marginalized in the US, it enjoys ongoing popularity in the UK and elsewhere. For those who can’t be bothered to plan ahead for a trip to the Moon, for those who want their future here and now, radio continues to offer cheap flights of fancy. At this moment—or whenever it is convenient for you to listen in—BBC Radio 4 presents M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart’s Abrogate, a radio play that imagines a post-Bush era in which Hillary Clinton takes over as US President and a Congressional committee is set up to investigate just what went wrong during the previous administration (a recording of which is available online for about a week).

Now, I don’t suppose anyone tuning in would confuse Abrogate with anything resembling reality, even though I have had my own War of the Worlds experience not too long ago, taking fiction for fact. As I was reminded last night, watching Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman (1931)—the story of a media-savvy evangelist avenging her father’s death by duping the public—radio was a medium to challenge these boundaries. It could make listeners believe by creating an alternate reality that, rather than being set aside for public display, seeped right into the ear canal and had the verisimilitude of daydreams and night terrors.

Having to leave our private sphere to see a performance, on stage or screen, assists in keeping drama separate from so-called real life, as does the opening and shutting of a book, which turns what we experience in fiction into a world apart. Beginning in the 1920s, the airwaves did away with the being away or setting apart; from the first live broadcast of a stage play (The Wolf, heard on 3 August 1922), the radio brought drama home; and throughout the 1930s and ’40s it did so daily, serially, and at times all too convincingly.

There were debates about the psychological effect of radio melodrama on women and children, the adult male apparently being deemed too levelheaded (or thick-headed, perhaps) to be thus influenced. Thrillers in particular—those “bloodcurdling broadcasts” that daily “gurgle[d] through the loudspeaker”—came under attack for threatening to “breed a race of neurotic impressionables” by virtue of radio’s “power to play on the ear with horror effects,” while so-called “washboard weepers”—or soap operas—had the youngsters’ elders in fits of pity and despair.

The creators of radio theater sure knew how to make a scene, the mind being a ready supplier of props and probabilities. Will such dramatics convince me tonight that Hillary Clinton got (or might get) into the White House? We shall hear . . .

Old-time Radio Primer: C Stands for Crooner

Well, I am mad about music this weekend, or something remotely resembling it. After fifteen years of going without while living in the Eurotrash-resisting US, I finally got another hit of it last spring. The Eurovision Song Contest, I mean, the spectacle (or cultural war) in whose battles have fought the likes of Celine Dion, Olivia Newton-John, Abba, Lulu, Cliff Richards, Katrina and the Waves, and whoever it was first to belt out “Volare.” Thursday night’s semi-finals in Athens were predictably vulgar—short on fabric and long on fanfare, feuds and fanaticism. Gone are the days in which a song could be sold without a dance, in which lyrics could catch the ear while the eye got a rest, on in which a chart-topper could have legs without the exposure of gams (assets that rarely hurt but failed Kate Ryan in her attempt to step up for Belgium).

So, my Norman Corwin-inspired Old-time Radio Primer, a lexical expedition of yesterday’s airwaves that got underway with definitions of “audience” and broadcastellan will pay tribute today to a craze that is as closely associated with radio as the set itself; to the vocal chords that, if Marion Davies’s experience in Going Hollywood is to be believed, ensnared a generation, made youngsters rebel and schoolmarm’s swoon; in short, the crooners and their tunes.

The crooners seized the advantage of the sonic close-up, the proximity to the microphone that can lend force to a whisper, a subtlety and intimacy hard to achieve in a crowded auditorium. They performed for an unprecedented multitude, but, coming home into parlor or boudoir, could always create the illusion of reaching everyone separately, singly, and, if imagined so by the listener, secretly as well.

Having no voice to match the tones of Rudy Vallee or Bing Crosby—whose “Temptation” still sends me—I will salute the much-mocked crooner with some slight but only slightly irreverent verse I penned for the occasion:

Well-oiled enough to wrestle
And steady enough to grind
It finds a niche to nestle
In the ever so obstinate mind.

Well-groomed enough for cocktails
And flashy enough to blind
It sticks when other crock fails
In the ever so obstinate mind. 

Well-heeled enough to dally
Obliging enough to bind:
The crooner and his sally
On the ever so obstinate mind. 

The crooner and his bally-
hoo,
of the
ever so obstinate
no-chance-you-will-forget
cure’s-not-discovered-yet
match-that-your-mind-has met
(more? how about a bet?) kind.

With the notable exception of Mr. Vallee, crooners quickly came to resent the term, insisting, like Crosby, to be billed or labeled otherwise (a simple “baritone” would do). After all, as much as they were adored by the radio listeners of the 1930s, who fantasized about American idols like Vallee, their “Vagabond Lover,” the crooners were widely dismissed or ridiculed by the press, whose writers might have felt threatened by these newly emerging voices, vocal Valentinos whose low, lavender tones seemed to have so much more erotic sway than can be generated by the most aggressive and boisterous Winchellean journalese.

To the chauvinists of the tabloids, radio had opened a Pandora’s voice box, and what poured out into the air to impregnate the imagination of millions was a provokingly and intimidatingly potent seed, strongly suggesting that such sounds could be mightier than the pen.

Old-time Radio Primer: B Stands for broadcastellan

Well, before I was being whisked off for a daytrip in observation of one of those red-letter days on which we are expected to celebrate the gradual approach of our inevitable demise, I subjected myself to a rather probing interview, conducted by the eminent if irascible radio reporter Wally Windchill. Are we ready, Mr. and Mrs. North America, and all the ships at sea?

As the laundry basket said to the ironing board: let’s go to press.

Windchill: You call yourself “broadcastellan.”

broadcastellan: Yes. Only in the blogosphere, mind you.

Windchill: I get it, a surfname; but what does it stand for?

broadcastellan: Well, it all started about a year ago, when, one quiet afternoon . . .

Windchill: Please, we are pressed for time.

broadcastellan: Sorry. The handle is meant to suggest that I am writing about broadcasting and that I consider myself a keeper of records, one who manages a neglected vault of half-forgotten radio treasures. A castellan in the castles on the air.

Windchill: So, it’s another one of your awful puns, basically.

broadcastellan: A pun, at any rate.

Windchill: Never mind the rate; it’s cheap. But about radio. As your first and only reviewer on one of those traffic generator sites put it so succinctly in his single-word comment: “Why?”

broadcastellan: Well, I am very much intrigued by aural drama as an alternative to visual entertainment; and, having written a dissertation on the potentialities and shortcomings of these stories in sound, as they played out in the minds of millions during the 1930s and ’40s, I thought I had something to share that . . .

Windchill: You don’t do short sentence, do you?

broadcastellan: Not true! I even “do” incomplete ones. On occasion.

Windchill: Cute. But, about radio. Why the old stuff?

broadcastellan: Radio drama has a fascinating history. It’s a tradition that, in the US at least, has been all but abandoned in favor of television.

Windchill: And that’s bad?

broadcastellan: I think so, yes.

Windchill: But why American radio? You live in England, don’t you?

broadcastellan: Wales, actually.

Windchill: As if anyone outside the UK could tell the difference. Why not British radio, then? I hear it’s still going strong over there.

broadcastellan: I am just not that impressed by what’s being done nowadays. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, radio was it, not fringe culture. The voices, the sound effects, the storytelling—the commercials. It’s the showmanship I admire, the theatricality. And nobody does showmanship better than the Americans. What I love particularly about US radio is its strong connection to old Hollywood; hearing those great stars. Everyone did radio in the 1930s and ’40s—everyone, except Garbo, who very nearly did. They don’t have stars nowadays; just celebrities.

Windchill: I see.

broadcastellan: Besides, I didn’t grow up with those voices. In Germany, where I’m from, movies are dubbed. Radio taught me a lot about the sound of American English, about idiom and jargon.

Windchill: Not that you got it down. Some queer diction you’ve got going on there, Mr. “broadcastellan.” So, you’re going to keep exposing others to your . . . radiology? Not a lot of people out there care, you know.

broadcastellan: I am aware of that, but undaunted by the general indifference. Yes, I’ll keep on blogging. My first anniversary is coming up, on 22 May.

Windchill: I guess we’re going to read all about that in a few days, then.

broadcastellan: Probably. Perhaps we could do another interview.

Windchill: It would have to be a slow newsday.

Old-time Radio Primer: A Stands for Audience

Well, we all crave it. An audience, I mean. Not that “audience” is the most precise term for visitors, readers, or spectators. Audiences are people who come to audit—to hear and judge—a performance as sound; and to no medium does the experience of aural appreciation seem more germane than to radio, the only forum in which a single recital has been known to have come, instantaneously, to the ears of nearly half the US population. So, I am opening my “Old-time Radio Primer,” as announced yesterday (and as inspired by Norman Corwin’s 1941 play “Radio Primer”) with just that word: “audience.”

Is “audience” a synonym of “radio listeners”? “Audience” generally implies membership, partaking of something or taking something in, whether singly or jointly, as an individual belonging to a certain group—be it a group of theatregoers or Roman Catholics. Radio listening, however, requires no such membership; nor is it a group experience.

The so-called members of the radio audience are separated, often tuning in alone. They are not unlike the anonymous websurfer in their isolation; but, back in the pre-TV era of the 1930s and ’40s, tuners-in were even more remote and less interactive than today’s rovers of the blogosphere. Radio listeners might talk to friends about a certain broadcast; they might even call in or write letters to a station or sponsor; but the interactivity of what has been called “yesterday’s internet” was nonetheless limited.

It was a removal from the public eye that was rather daunting to many performers, especially those coming to radio from the defunct vaudeville circuit. Actors standing behind the microphone in an empty, austere studio might have thought something like this (you’ve got to have some rhyme in a Corwin inspired primer):

An audience before you
Is easy to assess:
Folks sneer, snore or adore you,
Respond as you address.

It’s not so for the speaker
Behind the microphone;
The limelight sure seems bleaker
Faced millionfold alone.

This sense of isolation from the public made stage-trained performers reluctant to step into the theater of the mind. A notable exception was the great Alla Nazimova, an actress who very much embraced the opportunity to dis-appear on the air. “Always,” she confessed to the delight of a decidedly catty reviewer of one of her radio performances, “I have hated audiences. Always!”

Producers and sponsors of radio entertainment were concerned about the medium’s missing group dynamic. What would induce listeners at home to sit still during commercials, let alone purchase the articles advertised? To create this sense of a shared experience, broadcasters resorted to some aural trickery that has shaped television and influences it to this day.

I am referring, of course, to the “live studio audience.” In the 1930s and ’40s, most radio broadcasting was live; and it was widely believed that radio plays would sound even more like live entertainment, or at any rate more lively and interactive, if spectators were to come to the studio to howl and clap on cue.

There was considerable dispute over this definition of “live audience” as referring to studio visitors who could testify—through laughter and applause—that a certain performer truly was there, appearing in the flesh for some to see while dematerializing as sound for all to hear. As I discuss it in Etherized Victorians, my study on old-time radio, those who believed in the autonomy of radio drama as an art very much resented this spectacle approach to soundstaging, which gave listeners at home the impression that they were not witnessing the real thing because they never got to see the stars performing for them.

In a statement read at the close of the Campbell Playhouse presentation of Liliom (22 October 1939), Helen Hayes reminded listeners that a program barring spectators was

a real radio show, produced for the air, without a stage, without a curtain, without an audience in the studio. It allows the producer to produce and the actors to act for their real radio audience, for those millions of listeners sitting at their radio sets in their own homes all over the country.

Today, of course, “live studio audiences” in the age of time-delayed transmission and laughtrack accompaniment are neither truly live nor, for the most part, present in the studio. Given such progress, could I be hearing a chorus of disapproval?

On This Day in 1941: Radio Listeners Get a "Primer" on Their Favorite Pastime

Well, I really ought to have it checked. My memory, I mean. Here I am celebrating the wonders of old-time radio and plum forgot the birthday of the medium’s foremost writer. Poet-journalist Norman Corwin turned 96 yesterday. He had been on my mind, however, since today, 4 May, marks the 65th anniversary of one of his most enjoyable pieces for microphone and antennae: his Radio Primer. Here is how it opens:

Soloist: This is a Radio Primer. 

Quartet: Fa la, fa la, fa la. 

Soloist: The most elementary show you’ve heard 

Quartet: By far, by far, by far. 

Soloist: An alphabetical primer. 

Quartet: A, B C, D; F, E; 

Soloist: Degree by degree, 

From A to Z 

Our Primer will prim 

The radio industry! 

Quartet: The ra-di-o in-dust-ry!

In Corwin’s “Primer,” the letter A stands for “announcers” (the suave voices that cajoled listeners with invitations like “Why not try? Have you ever wondered? Won’t you ask?”). Announcers were the most highly paid men in the business, precisely because radio was business, and the announcer served as a mediator between the sponsor footing the bill for entertainment and the listeners who were expected to express their gratitude by buying the products advertised. The announcer’s spiel linked the commercial, which he read, with the play he introduced or narrated.

Manipulative, you say? Sure, but at least the audience was given a choice to resist such temptations, free of charge, whereas today, in the post-broadcasting age of cable and satellite, we are forced to pay for it all—including the dubious privilege of receiving the commercials.

B, according to Corwin’s “Primer,” stands for “Breakfast food.” What’s that got to do with radio, you ask? Clearly, after 65 years, some footnotes are in order. The radio industry was practically running on soap suds and cereals back then. After their mothers (and quite a few male listeners who may not have had the guts to admit to it) had tuned in for another chapter of their favorite daytime soap operas, the kids returned home from school for their daily bowlful of serial adventure, which, with some justice, might have been called afternoon cereals. Thanks to the sponsor’s spokesmen, Corwin’s “Definer” reminds us, children all across America knew that “Breakfast food is what you have to eat before you can be a hero.”

Another entry in the “Primer” is a gentle mockery of radio’s most notable ham. Yes, “O stands for Orson”: “Who is Orson? What is he, / That all the critics hail him? / Holy terror of the Mercury, / Publicity doth trail him.” And V, of course, stands for the trade paper that was a must for everyone in the industry. I’ve read it myself for years—or tried to decipher it—until I came to the conclusion that, not being in the biz, I really couldn’t justify my weekly fix of nixed polysyllabics like this:

The cinema is Pix.
The hinterland is Stix,
The people there are Hix,
And critics all are Crix.

Fa la, fa la, fa la. I’ve got it in my ears now, that eminently hummable score by Lyn Murray, one of radio’s most versatile composers. Indeed, I am so cheered and inspired by Corwin’s musical perusal of the dictionary that I will inaugurate my own “Old-time Radio Primer” tomorrow. I shall endeavor to go through the alphabet, letter by letter (if not as a daily, so perhaps as a weekly feature of the broadcastellan journal), and looking forward to the lexical challenge. Any suggestions? A and B are already accounted for, but there are a lot of letters left to mull over . . .

“A symmetry of unborn generations”: A Guernica for Radio

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.

Holding up to the sky my copy of Corwin’s play “They Fly Through the Air,” signed by its author

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.

Eran Trece for Dinner; or, A Spanish Lesson with Charlie Chan

Well, “gracias, muchisimas!” Thanks to some last-minute planning on my behalf, I’ll be off on a trip to sweltering Madrid, starting next Wednesday. It will be my first visit to continental Europe since I left my native Germany for New York City in 1990; and it has been even longer since last I’ve traveled to a country whose primary language I neither speak nor comprehend. Although I lived just below Spanish Harlem for many years and the majority of my students at City University colleges were Hispanic, I never picked up more than the odd word or phrase. Indolence and impatience aside, my main excuse is that I was too busy appropriating English and promoting it as a common language, the thorough knowledge of which would benefit all who choose to live in the United States.

These days, resisting such study—and missing out intellectually and economically as a result—is being celebrated as multiculturalism, I suppose. Aware that I would miss out on Spanish culture unless I made a valiant if belated effort to train my tongue linguistically as well as culinarily, I popped in a DVD last night and watched Eran Trece. What better introduction to a foreign language than a lesson delivered by a Spanish re-interpreter of an American conception of the aphorism-peppered speech of a Chinaman! Charlie Chan, that is.

Eran Trece (1931) is the Spanish version of Charlie Chan Carries On, a copy of which has not yet resurfaced. It was produced in the early days of the talkies, when recasting rather than dubbing was being explored as a means of broadening the market for English and American films after the end of the silent era threatened to fragment the movie industry and diminish the potential of major studios like 20th Century Fox to generate global box-office successes. It was a costly enterprise that dubbing soon made redundant.

For anyone who has been exposed to dubbed films and the consequent muffling of cultural differences, the advantages of recasting will be readily appreciated, even though it meant that international audiences did not get to see the well-trained stars of Hollywood or Elstree, unless these performers were multilingual. Claudette Colbert, for instance, acted in both The Big Pond and its French version Le Grand Mer (1930).

Restaging also demanded a few rewrites to make an originally American or British film more intelligible or palatable to the international audience. For instance, when remarking upon a photograph of Chan’s many-headed family, characters in the original are reminded of Birth of a Nation, whereas the Spanish commentators liken it to a soccer team; apparently, not all silent movies translate quite so easily either. Eran Trece certainly has some Spanish blood in it; and even though much of it is spilled, the scenario includes a cheerful party scene with a fiery musical interlude that does not appear to be matched by the American original.

I neglected to mention that the copy I screened did not have English subtitles; so, being only vaguely familiar with the novel I read ages ago in a German translation, I availed myself of the scenario for the missing American film version, which is being shared online by the most generous and kindly guardian of the Charlie Chan Family Home. It was one of the most curious cinematic experiences I had since attending a MoMA screening of the fragmentary British-German coproduction of The Queen Was in the Parlor (1927), a silent film (neither scored nor accompanied by piano) . . . with Danish titles.

So, did I learn any Spanish last night? Well, not really, apart from Charlie’s frequently reiterated “Gracias, muchisimas”; but I’m sure I’ll remember the folly of this odd encounter with the Oriental hombre when confronted with the task of deciphering the dinner menus next week.