Eyre Apparent: Adoption, Adaptation and the ‘orphan child of accepted literature’

The most recent item to enter my collection of ephemera is a somewhat tattered, unpublished radio script (pictured above).  It is held together by rusty staples that attest to the authenticity to which, as a cultural product, it cannot justly lay claim. I still do not know the first thing about it. When was it written? To whom was it sold? Was it ever produced?

Initial research online revealed at least that Hugh Lester, the writer claiming responsibility – or demanding credit – for the script, was by the late 1930s a known entity in the business of radio writing, with one of his adaptations (a fifteen-minute dramatisation of Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Necklace”) appearing in a volume titled Short Plays for Stage and Radio (1939).   Rather than wait to ascertain its parentage, I decided to adopt Lester’s brainchild after spotting it lingering in the virtual orphanage known as eBay, where the unwanted are put on display for those of us who might be enticed to give them a new home.

Getting it home – my present residence – proved a challenge.  After being dispatched from The Bronx, the script spent a few months in foster care – or a gap behind a sofa in my erstwhile abode in Manhattan – before my ex could finally be coaxed into shipping it to Wales.  I occasionally have eBay purchases from the US mailed to my former New York address to avoid added international postage; but the current pandemic is making it impractical to collect those items in person, given that I am obliged to forgo my visits to the old neighborhood this year.  I was itching to get my hands on those stapled sheets of paper, especially since I am once again teaching my undergraduate class (or module, in British parlance) in Adaptation, in which the particular story reworked by Lester features as a case study.

As its title declares, the item in question is a “Radio Serial in Three Half Hour Episodes” of Charlotte Brontë’s 1848 novel Jane Eyre.  It is easy for us to call Jane Eyre that now – a novel.  When it was first published, of course, it came before the public as an autobiography, the identity of its creator disguised (‘Edited by Currer Bell,’ the original title page read), leading to wild speculations as to its parentage.  An adaptation, on the other hand, proudly discloses its origins, and it builds a case for its right to exist by drawing attention to its illustrious ancestry, as Lester’s undated serialisation does:

Announcer: We take pride in presenting for your entertainment at the first chapter of a distinguished dramatisation of Charlotte Brontë’s world famous novel, Jane Eyre.

An interesting choice of phrasing, that: while the source is pronounced to be ‘world-famous,’ meaning popular, this further popularisation by radio is argued to be ‘distinguished,’ meaning, presumably, first-rate – unless ‘distinguished’ is meant to suggest that the child (the adaptation) can readily be told apart from the parent (source).  Is not Jane Eyre ‘distinguished,’ whereas the aim of radio serials, plays for a mass medium, is to be popular, if only temporarily? Clearly, Lester aimed in that announcement to elevate to an art the run-of-the-mill business of adaptation that was his line; and run-of-the-mill it certainly was, most or the time.

One expert on radio scripts, commenting in 1939, went so far as to protest that radio had ‘developed almost no writers,’ that it had ‘appropriated almost all of them, at least all of those who could tell a good story.’  The same commentator, Max Wylie – himself a former radio director of scripts and continuity at CBS – also called ‘radio writing’ the ‘orphan child of accepted literature.’ To him, most radio writing was no ‘radio’ writing at all, at least not ‘in the artistic and creative sense,’ but ‘an effort in translation’ – ‘a work of appropriation whose legitimacy depends upon the skill of its treatment but whose real existence depends upon the work of some able craftsman who quite likely never anticipated the electrical accident of the microphone.’

Instead of approaching adaptation in terms of fidelity – how close it is to its source – what should concern those of us who write about radio as a form is how far an adaptation (or translation, or dramatisation) needs to distance itself from its source so it can be adopted by the medium to which it is introduced.  However rare they may be, radio broadcasts such as “The War of the Worlds” have demonstrated that an adaptation can well be ‘radio writing’ – as long as it is suited to the medium in such a way that it becomes dependent on it for its effective delivery.  It needs to enter a new home where it can be felt to belong instead of being made to pay a visit, let alone be exploited for being of service.

Jane Eyre was adapted for US radio numerous times during the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s.  The history of its publication echoing the story of its heroine and their fate in the twentieth century – Jane Eyre was apparently parentless.  Brontë concealed her identity so that Jane could have a life in print, or at least a better chance of having a happy and healthy one.  In the story, Jane must learn to be independent before the man who loves her can regain her trust – a man who, in turn, has to depend on her strength.  Similarly, Jane Eyre had to be separated from her mother, Charlotte Brontë, because she could not trust the male critics to accept her true parentage.

On the air, that parent, Charlotte Brontë, needs to be acknowledged so that an adaptation of Jane Eyre does not become an impostor; at the same time, the birth mother must be disowned so that Jane can become a child of the medium of which the parent had no notion – but which is nonetheless anticipated in the telepathic connection that, in the end, leads an adult and independent Jane back to Mr. Rochester, the lover who betrayed her and must earn her trust anew.

Lester’s three-part adaptation retains that psychic episode in Brontë’s story:

Rochester: (In agony.  Whispering through a long tube) Jane! Jane! I need you.  Come to me – come to me!

In radio broadcasting, ‘[w]hispering through a long tube’ can be made to suggest telephony and telepathy – and indeed the medium has the magic of equating both; the prosaic soundstage instruction revealing the trick makes clear, however, that the romance of radio is in the production, that, unlike a novel, a radio play cannot be equated with a script meant for performance.

Being three times as long as most radio adaptations, Lester’s script can give Jane some air to find herself and a home for herself.  And yet, like many other radio versions of the period, it depends so heavily on dramatisation as to deny Jane the chance of shaping her own story.  One scholar, Sylvère Monod has identified thirty passages in which the narrator of Jane Eyre Jane Eyre directly addresses the audience.  And yet, the most famous line of Brontë’s novel is missing from Lester’s script, just as it is absent in most adaptations: ‘Reader, I married him.’ How easily this could be translated into ‘listener’ – to resonate profoundly that most intimate of all mass media: the radio.

Lester, according to whose script plain Jane is ‘pretty,’ is not among the ‘distinguished’ plays of – or for – radio.  Exploiting its source, by then a copyright orphan, it fosters an attitude that persists to this day, despite my persistent efforts to suggest that it can be otherwise: that radio writing is the ‘orphan child of accepted literature.’

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.

A Night’s Wait: Hemingway, the Apocalypse and I

‘It’s not the end of the world.’  How often do we utter those words, whether to calm ourselves or to dismiss the concerns of others.  Well, I never found anything calming about that expression.  It is the belittling by hyperbole that irks me.  We tend to judge the gravity of a situation by the magnitude of its physical manifestations rather than the depth of feelings it produces in the experiencer.  I, for one, have experienced the end of the world in early childhood; yet there is no evidence of an event having taken place, no trace of its existence save for the lachrymal salt on a crumpled pillow that, I suppose, was disposed of decades ago.  No surface trace, that is.

How am I looking? Is this an expression of trust,
apprehension or a questioning of portraiture as truth?
One evening, in a working-class flat in the grim sterility of the German industrial town I was expected to call home, I overheard my parents make mention of the apocalypse.  Someone had predicted that the world was going to end, and the date was set for the night to come.  It was one of those doomsday prophecies that adults shrug off or subscribe to, depending on their intellect, faith and psychological make-up.  As a child, I had no recourse to experience.  I had no knowledge of having survived any number of doomsdays pronounced previously.  Nor did I yet doubt that adults knew all and spoke true.  I only had that night to go into, with a sense that it would be my last.

I was put to bed, and it felt as if I had been abandoned, cast out to face the unfathomable by myself.  I was going to be no more.  Everything I knew was to turn into unknowable nothingness.  No one seemed troubled to prepare me for this chaos, the void that I already felt lying alone in the dark.  I remember well the agony of that night, an angst that I now might term existential.

I have no recollection of the morning after.  What followed, though, were years of nightmares involving the atom bomb, cold-war sweat inducing anxieties about nuclear fallout and the nihilism of the No Future generation, mingled, in my case, with an awareness of my queer otherness that made it seem impossible for me to go into those nights in a fellowship of the doomed.

No doubt, this is why Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Day’s Wait” appealed to me when I first read it as a teenager.  It is a story of a boy who, owing to a momentous misunderstanding, believes himself to be dying.  It is that story I chose to write about as an undergraduate student in English literature, even though it has often been dismissed as a minor work of magazine fiction beyond the canon of Hemingway’s supposed greatest.  I, on the other hand, was drawn to what I read as its theme of trivialized sublimity and the terror of that trivialisation.


Until recently, I did not consider that my first last night might have been the beginning of the end, not of childhood – a concept I have long come to question  – but of trust, faith, love and a sense of order and stability.  Now, as I am preparing for a lecture on gothic ruins, I am piecing together those haunting, Frankensteinean fragments of my past and present selves, and I wonder just how much fell apart that one nightfall … 

[This entry is dedicated to the students of my Gothic Imagination class, whom, during the last few weeks, I exposed to visualisations of nightmares, sublime views and dystopian visions.]

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.

Gotham/Gothic; or, A Tale of Two Strawberries

Visiting Strawberry Hill

Much of what I know about English literature I learned in the Bronx.  The peculiar indirection of my path—a German approaching British culture by taking the Lexington Avenue Express—did not escape me then; and even though I had no doubt as to the qualifications of those who taught me, I decided, upon finishing my Master’s thesis on the Scottish essayist-translator Thomas Carlyle, to go after something that, geographically speaking, lay closer to my temporary home. 

Never one for obvious choices, I wrote my doctoral study on US radio drama, a subject that, however arcane, struck me as being rather more compatible with life in a Mecca for the enthusiasts of American popular culture among which I numbered.  It also made it possible for me to take advantage of some of the resources particular to Manhattan, the isle of Radio City.

Not that I considered studying British culture so far removed from the Globe Theatre, the Scottish Borders, or the wilds of Yorkshire much of a disadvantage, being that I had adopted a subjective mode of reading that favors response over intention, that explores the reception of a written work rather than tracing is origins.  Call it rationalizing, call it kidding yourself—I thought that I should make a virtue of vicariousness. 

 
Living in Britain now, I am rediscovering its literature through the landscape rather than by way of the library; and I am finding my way back to those old books by stepping into even older buildings.  One such book and one such building is Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), otherwise known as Strawberry Hill.
 
A most un-Gothicbut gloriousday at Strawberry Hill

Originally a small cottage in rural Twickenham, Strawberry Hill was transformed by Walpole into a gothic castellino; it also housed the author’s own printing press, although Otranto was published in nearby London.  The crenelated battlements were made of wood and needed to be replaced more than once in Walpole’s lifetime.  “My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole famously declared, “and both will blown away in ten years after I am dead.” This could well have happened; but, despite the relative weakness of his materials—a spurious medieval romance and the less than solid additions to Chopp’d Straw Cottage—both survive today as a testimony to Walpole’s enduring influence on popular tastes in architecture and literature.

 
And yet, however exciting the experience, walking around Strawberry Hill after all those years of living and studying so close to Strawberry Fields, Central Park, brought home nothing more forcibly than that getting to the heart of the matter that is art is not a matter of inspection but of introspection. Stripped of most of its furnishings, Strawberry Hill is a tease. Beyond the stained glass windows and the restored façade, there is little left of Walpole’s story or his antiquarian spirit.  To be sure, even if Walpole’s library had not been emptied of the contents that makes and defines it, it would remain inaccessible to those looking around now without being permitted to touch and turn the pages.

Visitors to historic houses, like readers of fictions, must always be prepared to supply the fittings, to construct in their mind’s eye what the supposedly first-hand experience of seeing for ourselves can never make concrete and, therefore, never quite smash or supplant.  Where, if not in our reading, dreaming, thinking selves does the spirit of literature reside?

The audio guide at Strawberry Hill is a self-conscious acknowledgment of this sightseeing conundrum; it plays like a radio drama—my studies of which have not gone to waste altogether—that teases us with the voices of the dead and the echoes of their footsteps. Our own footfall, meanwhile, is muffled by the protective plastic coverings provided for our shoes at the entrance to the site.

Walpole’s paper house has been given a permanence in the midst of which I am reminded of the paper-thinness of my own existence.  What lingers is the anxiety of leaving here—or anywhere—without having left a trace at all.

Ascent to the Gods: The Odyssey of Norman Corwin (1910-2011)

Obituaries often begin like this: The world (the art world, the theater world, the world of miniature golf, or what have you) has lost one of its leading, brightest, most prominent so-and-so’s. But that won’t do. Not if the so-and-so is Norman Corwin. The formula would not be worthy of him, for one. Stylistically alone, it would be un-Corwinian; it would be Hummertsian. Nor would it fit the occasion of commemorating his life’s work since the formula cannot contain it. The application would lead instead to inaccurate, misleading statements such as this one: The world of radio drama lost one of its greatest writers.

True, Norman Corwin, who died on 18 October 2011 at the age of 101, was a leading light in that dark theater of the mind. But he was also a journalist, a teacher, a screenwriter, a director, a producer, and, what has yet to get into the heads of those who assemble the anthologies of American Literature, a poet. He inhabited and enriched many worlds—and yet, for the past sixty years or so, Corwin has not been known the world over. You might say that we, most or millions of us, lost Norman Corwin decades ago because we, or some somebodies we permitted to act in our stead—though not on our behalf—decided that the world Corwin helped create and never forgot should be written off, abandoned, and depopulated of its talent like the ghost of a mine whose ore is no longer deemed worth our digging . . .

In the United States, the world of radio drama is such a lost world—and those, like cretaceous me, who keep on living in this world even if we can no longer live by it, might as well be dwelling on some dark star in a parallel universe. Unlike today’s listeners, radio writers did not have that choice back in the late 1940s, unless they were content, as Corwin put it in retrospect, to be “apolitical except for strong support of home and motherhood,” “inoffensive to the world in all its parts (although in radio practice, exceptions are often made in the case of minority-opinion groups which cannot possibly reply)” and prepared to “keep within the pale of clichés of character and situation so traditional there is a mellow patina on them.”

“I believe that artistic radio, whether commercial or otherwise, will not develop without a willing and interested leadership on the part of those who control programming, budget and time,” Corwin exclaimed in 1947. “That is all.”

That was all. One year later, Corwin felt compelled to remind those in control that he was still there, waiting and willing to take on another creative assignment—another Twenty-Six by Corwin, perhaps, another One World Flight. “I Can Be Had,” he announced; but those in “control” would not have him back.

“The artists are around, and there is nothing occult about the process of dialing their telephone numbers and talking it over.” Apparently, no one bothered to touch that dial. After years of restraint, commercial radio was eager to get richer even it that meant becoming culturally less enriching. It was a short-lived strategy of cashing in before television would take over and pretty much close the theater of the mind for good. Never again would a single play written for the ear reach and move an audience of sixty million in no more than two performances—as Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph” did in 1945.

Forced to exit network radio because executives no longer commissioned verse plays, dramatic documentaries or travelogues in sound—three genres that are quintessentially Corwinian—Norman Corwin began travelling between worlds, the worlds of film, journalism, and the academia. Television, at least initially, was too small, too restrictive a realm to attract, let alone accommodate an imagination as vast as his. To Corwin, the audiovisual upstart was but a “poor bastard among the arts, having the benefit of neither the full scope and mobility of cinema, the immediacy of the legitimate theatre, nor the powerful suggestibility of radio’s unillustrated spoken word.”

The American theater of the mind may have been shut up, but Corwin’s mind stayed open. For over sixty years, he kept on journeying, searching and yearning. That’s the spirit that sustains you until you’re 101. Lucky are those who encountered him along the way. I prize the words of encouragement he wrote to me when, a few years ago, I dusted off my obscure dissertation on the American play to share my chapter on Corwin with the very man. I think of those words whenever I feel that, not being quite as eager as he to venture elsewhere, I lost my way; that I am lost to most of the image-minded world, untravelled, unraveling, yet all the while revelling in the “unillustrated spoken word.” I got the words, all right; Corwin had the wisdom as well.

I shall leave this entry in my otherwise image-filled journal “unillustrated.” I imagine Mr. Corwin appreciates the gesture . . .

(For those ready to catch up or on, the entire run of Twenty-Six by Corwin is currently being rebroadcast by John and Larry Gassman of Same Time, Same Station.)

Time and the Airwaves: Notes on a Priestley Season

Both BBC Radio 4 and 7 are in the thick of a J. B. Priestley festival, a spate of programs ranging from serial dramatizations of early novels (The Good Companions and Bright Day) and adaptations of key plays (Time and the Conways and An Inspector Calls), to readings from his travelogue English Journey and a documentary about the writer’s troubled radio days. Now, I don’t know just what might be the occasion for such a retrospective, since nothing on the calendar coincides with the dates of Priestley’s birth or death. Perhaps, it is the connection with the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk, an event on which Priestley embroidered in June 1941 for one of his Postscript broadcasts, that recalled him to the minds of those in charge of BBC radio programming.

Never mind the wherefores and whys. Any chance of catching up with Priestley is welcome, especially when the invitation is extended by way of the wireless, the means and medium by which his voice and words reached vast audiences during the 1930s and early 1940s, both in the United Kingdom and the United States.

For all his experience as a broadcaster, though, Priestley, who was not so highbrow as to high-hat the mass market of motion pictures, never explored radio as a playwright’s medium, as a potential everyman’s theater on whose boards to try his combined radiogenic skills of novelist, dramatist, and essayist for the purpose of constructing the kind of aural plays that are radio’s most significant contribution to twentieth-century literature—the plays of ideas.

Priestley prominently installed a wireless set in Dangerous Corner, a stage thriller whose characters gather to listen to a thriller broadcast. Later, he read his controversial wartime commentaries (titled Postscripts) to a vast radio audience. He even went on one of Rudy Vallee’s variety programs to discuss the fourth dimension. Yet the medium that relied entirely on that dimension, to the contemplation of which he devoted many of his stage plays—Time and the Conways and I Have Been Here Before among them—did not intrigue Priestley to make time and create plays especially for the air.

To be sure, his falling out with the BBC in 1941 (as outlined in Martin Wainwright’s radio documentary about the Postscript broadcasts) did little to foster Priestley’s appreciation of the radiodramatic arts. Yet the indifference is apparent long before his relationship with Auntie soured. When interviewed for the 1 September 1939 issue of the Radio Times about his novel Let the People Sing, which was to be read serially on the BBC before it appeared in print, Priestley dismissed the idea that he had written it with broadcasting in mind:

I realised, of course, that the theme must appeal to the big majority. But apart from that, I thought it better to let myself go and leave the BBC to make it into twelve radio episodes. It would otherwise have cramped my style.

To Priestley, the “experiment” of broadcasting his novel lay in the marketing “gamble” of making it publicly available prior to publication, a challenge of turning publishing conventions upside down by effectively turning the printed book into a sort of postscript. Clearly, he looked upon radio a means of distribution rather than a medium of artistic expression.

Reading I Have Been Here Before and listening to the radio adaptation of Time and the Conways, I realized now little either is suited to the time art of aural play. Whereas the Hörspiel or audio play invites the utter disregard for the dramatic unities of time and space, Priestley relied on the latter to make time visible or apparent for us on the stage.

The Conways, like the characters of Dangerous Corner before them, are brought before us in two temporal versions, a contrast designed to explore how destinies depend on single moments in time—moments in which an utterance or an action brings about change—and how such moments might be recaptured or rewritten to prevent time from being, in Hamlet’s words, “out of joint.”

“Time’s only a dream,” Alan Conway insists. “Time doesn’t destroy anything. It merely moves us on—in this life—from one peep-hole to the next.” Our past selves are “real and existing. We’re seeing another bit of the view—a bad bit, if you like—but the whole landscape’s still there.”

In Priestley’s plays, it is the scenery, the landscape of stagecraft, that remains there, “whole” and virtually unchanged. The unity of space is adhered to so as to show up changes in attitudes and relationships and to maintain cohesion in the absence or disruption of continuity. In radio’s lyrical time plays, by comparison, neither time nor place need be of any moment. It is the moment alone that matters on the air, an urgency that Priestley, the essayist and wartime commentator, must surely have sensed. Priestley, the novelist and playwright did or could not. Too few ever did. To this day, a whole aural landscape is biding its time . . .

“. . . reduced, blended, modernised”: The Wireless Reconstitution of Printed Matter

Nearly two centuries ago, young Rebecca Sharp marked her entrance into the world by hurling a book out of a coach window. That book, reluctantly gifted to her by the proprietress of Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies, was Johnson’s dictionary, a volume for which Ms. Sharp had little use, given that she was rarely at a loss for words. By the time her story became known, in 1847, words in print had become a rather less precious commodity, especially after the British stamp tax was abolished in 1835, which, in turn, made the emergence of the penny press possible. Publications were becoming more frequent—and decidedly more frivolous.

Gone were the days when a teenager like Mary Jones, whose story I encountered on a trip to the Welsh town of Bala last weekend, walked twenty-five miles, barefooted, for the privilege of owning a Bible. Sure, I enjoy the occasional daytrip to Hay-on-Wye, the renowned “Town of Books” near the English border where, earlier this month, I snatched up a copy of the BBC’s 1952 Year Book (pictured). Still, ever since the time of the great Victorian novelists, the reading public has been walking no further than the local lending library or wherever periodicals were sold to catch up on the latest fictions and follow the exploits of heroines like Becky Sharp in monthly installments.

In Victorian times, the demand for stories was so great that poorly paid writers were expected to churn them out with ever greater rapidity, which left those associated with the literary trade to ponder new ways of meeting the supply. In Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), a young woman assisting her scholarly papa is startled by an

advertisement in the newspaper, headed “Literary Machine”; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to [. . .] turn out books and articles? Alas! The machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for today’s consumption.

Barbara Cartland notwithstanding, such a “true automaton” has not yet hit the market; but the recycling of old stories for a modern audience had already become a veritable industry by the beginning of the second quarter of the 20th century, during which “golden age” the wireless served as both home theater and ersatz library for the entertainment and distraction craving multitudes.

A medium of—and only potentially for—modernity, radio has always culled much of its material from the past, “Return with us now” being one of the phrases most associated with aural storytelling. It is a phenomenon that led me to write my doctoral study Etherized Victorians, in which I relate the demise of American radio dramatics to the failure to establish or encourage its own, autochthonous, that is, strictly aural life form.

Sure, the works of Victorian authors are in the public domain; as such, they are cheap, plentiful, and, which is convenient as well, fairly innocuous. And yet, for reasons other than economics, they strike us as radiogenic. Like the train whistle of the horse-drawn carriage, they seem to be the very stuff of radio—a medium that was quaint and antiquated from the onset, when television was announced as being “just around the corner.”

Perhaps, the followers of Becky Sharp should not toss out their books yet; as American radio playwright Robert Lewis Shayon pointed out, the business of adaptation is fraught with “artistic problems and dangers.” He argued that he “would rather be briefed on a novel’s outline, told something about its untransferable qualities, and have one scene accurately and fully done than be given a fast, ragged, frustrating whirl down plot-skeleton alley.”

It was precisely for this circumscribed path, though, that American handbooks like Jame Whipple’s How to Write for Radio (1938) or Josephina Niggli’s Pointers on Radio Writing (1946) prepared prospective adapters, reminding them that, for the sake of action, they needed to “retain just sufficient characters and situations to present the skeleton plot” and that they could not “afford to waste even thirty seconds on beautiful descriptive passages.”

As I pointed out in Etherized, broadcast writers were advised to “free [themselves] first from the enchantment of the author’s style” and to “outline the action from memory.” Illustrating the technique, Niggli reduced Jane Eyre—one of the most frequently radio-readied narratives—to a number of plot points, “bald statements” designed to “eliminate the non-essential.” Only the dialogue of the original text was to be restored whenever possible, although here, too, paraphrases were generally required to clarify action or to shorten scenes. Indeed, as Waldo Abbot’s Handbook of Broadcasting (1941) recommended, dialogue had to be “invented to take care of essential description.”

To this day, radio dramatics in Britain, where non-visual broadcasting has remained a viable means of telling stories, the BBC relies on 19th-century classics to fill much of its schedule. The detective stories of Conan Doyle aside, BBC Radio 7 has just presented adaptations of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-48), featuring the aforementioned Ms. Sharp, and currently reruns Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles (1855-67). The skeletons are rather more complete, though, as both novels were radio-dramatized in twenty installments, and, in the case of Trollope’s six-novel series, in hour-long parts.

BBC Radio 4, meanwhile, has recently aired serializations of Trollope’s Orley Farm (1862), Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1866) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Next week, it is presenting both Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (both 1853), the former in ten fifteen minute chapters, the latter in three hour-long parts.

Radio playwright True Boardman once complained that adaptations for the aural medium bear as close a relation to the original as “powdered milk does to the stuff that comes out of cows.” They are culture reconstituted. “[R]educed, blended, [and] modernised“, they don’t get a chance to curdle . . .

Note: Etherised Victorians was itself ‘reduced and blended,’ and published as Immaterial Culture in 2013.


Related writings (on Victorian literature, culture and their recycling)
“Hattie Tatty Coram Girl: A Casting Note on the BBC’s Little Dorrit
“Valentine Vox Pop; or, Revisiting the Un-Classics”
“Curtains Up and ‘Down the Wires'”
Eyrebrushing: The BBC’s Dull New Copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Bold Portrait”

"I started Early—Took my Dog . . ."

“. . . and visited the Sea.” I have not read the poetic works of Emily Dickinson in many a post-collegiate moon; yet, as wayward as my memory may be, I never forgot those glorious opening lines. You might say that is has long been an ambition of mine to utter them, to experience for myself the magic they evoke; but, until recently, I have failed on three accounts to follow Emily in her excursion. That is, I had no dog to take along; nor did I never live close enough to the sea to approach it on foot, at least not with the certain ease that might induce me to undertake such a venture.

Now that there is Montague in my life and Cardigan Bay practically at our doorsteps, the only thing that prevents me from having such a Dickinsonian moment is a habitual antemeridian tardiness. If “All’s right with the world” when “Morning’s at seven,” as Robert Browning famously put it, then I might as well roll over and let it bask in its easterly lit serenity. It is for the early birds to confirm of refute such a Browning version of bliss.

Besides, as Victorian storyteller Cuthbert Bede once remarked, it is “well worth going to Aberystwith [. . .] if only to see the sun set.” So, I’m starting late instead and take my dog for evening visits to the sea. No “Mermaids” have yet come out of the “basement” to greet me; nor any of those bottlenose dolphins that are on just about every brochure or poster designed to boost the town’s tourist industry. They are out there, to be sure; but unlike Ms. Dickinson, I’m not taking the plunge to get up close and let my “Shoes [ . . .] overflow with Pearl” until the rising tide “ma[kes] as He would eat me up.”

Not with Montague in tow. Dogs are not allowed on the beach this time of year. It is a sound policy, too, given that Montague frequently manages to confound me by squatting down more than once, especially when I am only equipped with a single repository with which to dispose of the issue. Is it any wonder that I’d much rather start late, preferably under cover of night?

On this sunless Tuesday morning, though, I started just early enough to keep Montague’s appointment with the veterinarian. No walk along the promenade for the old chap, to whom the change of schedule was no cause for suspicion. Now, I don’t know what possessed me to agree to his being anesthetized to have his teeth cleaned, other than Montague’s stubborn refusal to permit us to brush them. I trust that, once he has forgiven me for this betrayal of his trust, that we have many more late starts to meet and mate with the sea . . .

Another Man’s Ptomaine: Was “The Undertaker’s Tale” Worth Exhuming?

Bury this. Apparently, it was with words not much kinder that the aspiring but already middle-aged storyteller Samuel Clemens was told what to do with “The Undertaker’s Tale.” Written in 1877, it was not published until this year, nearly a century after the author’s death. The case of the premature burial has not only been brought to light but, thanks to BBC Radio 4, the disinterred matter has also been exposed to the air (and the breath of reader Hector Elizondo). So, you may ask after being duly impressed by the discovery, does it stink?

To be sure, even the most minor work of a major literary figure is deserving of our attention; and “The Undertaker’s Tale” is decidedly minor. It derives whatever mild titters it might induce from the premise that one man’s meat is another man’s poison or, to put it another way, one man’s dead body is another’s livelihood.

“We did not drop suddenly upon the subject,” the narrator ushers us into the story told to him by his “pleasant new acquaintance,” the undertaker, “but wandered into it, in a natural way.” We should expect slow decay, then, rather than a dramatic exit—and, sure enough, there is little to startle or surprise us here.

There isn’t much of a plot either—but a lot of them. The eponymous character—one Mr. Cadaver—is a kind-hearted chap who cheers at the prospect of an epidemic and who fears for his family business whenever the community is thriving. To him and his lovely, lively tribe there can be no joy greater than the timely demise of an unscrupulous vulture (some simulacrum of a Scrooge), which—death ex machina and Abracacaver!—is just what happens in the end.

In its time, “The Undertaker’s Tale” may have been dismissed as being in poor taste; what is worse, though, is that it is insipid. To bury it was no doubt the right decision as it might have ended Clemens’s literary career before it got underway by poisoning the public’s mind against him. A death sentence of sorts.

It may sound morbid, but, listening to this unengaging trifle, I drifted off in thoughts of home. My future home, that is. No, I am not about to check out; but within a few days now I am going to move to a town known, albeit by very few, as Undertaker’s Paradise.

Back in 2000, the Welsh seaside resort of Aberystwyth served as the setting for a dark comedy thriller with that title. Starring Ben Gazzara, it concerns an undertaker rather more enterprising than Mr. Cadaver in the procuring of bodies. Like Twain’s story before it, the forgotten film is waiting to be dug up and appreciated anew. Unlike Twain’s story, it has no literary pedigree to induce anyone to pick up a shovel. Shame, really. It’s the better yarn of the two.


Related writings
“Mark Twain, Six Feet Under”
“What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Don Knotts (1924-2006) on the Air”