Hoping for More Scandal; or, When the “head’s modern, though the trunk’s antique”

Well, as I mentioned yesterday, I had the pleasure of being lectured on sentiment and sensationalism in one of the back rows of The School for Scandal. It was a lesson conveyed with great wit and delivered without frills by the Northern Broadsides theatre company. I didn’t expect Sheridan’s characters to gossip in marked northern accents and thought Maria was less of a prize now that she was shouting just as angrily as the “odious” and “disagreeable” people around her. Generally, however, the coarseness of tongue lent realism to the idle chatter of the upper crust.

Gone was the Cowardian disparity between elocution and vulgarity, between high class and mean instincts. Rather than being vocal acrobats in a Wildean vein, the graduates of this School were crass, brazen, and dangerous mudslingers. Only Joseph Surface was given the slick treatment in voice and appearance, a suitable gloss to reflect his falsehood. What might an American radio production do with such caricatures, I wondered, and went in pursuit of more Scandal on the air.

When aiming at respectability, US radio of the 1930s and 1940s not infrequently availed itself of British drama. Soap operas were for the kitchen—but Shakespeare and Pinero were for the parlor. As I put it in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral study on so-called old-time radio, Sir Benjamin Backbite’s remark about Mrs. Evergreen is an apt comment on US radio drama, a novel form of production that often exhausted itself in re-productions. “[W]hen she has finished her face,” Sir Benjamin quips, the unseen Mrs. Evergreen “joins it on so badly to her neck, that she looks like a mended statue, in which the connoisseur may see at once that the head’s modern, though the trunk’s antique.”

Now, radio drama truly was a “mended statue,” a patched-up artform that rarely resembled the genuine article it tried to copy. In radio, the trunk (the smart console) was modern, but the head, the boardroom of executives in charge of programming, was decidedly “antique” when it came to defining wholesome or commercially viable entertainment. To be sure, in the case of Pre-Victorian plays like Sheridan’s Scandal, mending the statue might have required some whitewash to tone down its display of adultery and cover up its hints of abortion.

Unfortunately, the productions of Scandal as heard on the Radio Guild are no longer extant, since no transcription have been preserved or recovered. Indeed, nearly the entire series seems to have been destroyed as scandalously as the reputation of Sheridan’s characters. This is all the more lamentable considering that the Radio Guild (pictured above, anno 1930) was the first major theater anthology on network radio. Beginning in 1929, just days after Wall Street laid its infamous egg, it brought free theater into the homes of millions, plays ranging from Shakespeare to Wilde, from Goldsmith to Boucicault.

Even if its producers kept their heads mainly in antique trunks, Radio Guild surely sounds like a statue worth mending, if only its pieces had been scattered rather than obliterated. So, if you find a fragment, please fling it my way.

Avian Flu Threats and “The Birds” on the Wireless

“What’s on the wireless?” he said.
“About the birds,” she said. “It’s not only here, it’s everywhere. In London, all over the country. Something has happened to the birds.”—Daphne du Maurier, “The Birds” (1952).

Lately I have been eyeing our bird feeder with considerable apprehension. Not because I am anticipating some sort of Tippi Hedren incident while taking care of my feathered charge, but because of the recent news about the deadly avian flu that has been spreading in the east. Some time ago, a UN health official warned that a pandemic “could happen at any time” and might “kill between 5 and 150 million people”. Today, the EU decided to “ban all Turkish live bird and feather imports,” after as many as sixty people had succumbed to the disease in Turkey and Romania. Should I banish the feeder from its prominent spot to some remote corner of the garden? Should I stop treating the local tits and finches to their daily allowance of choice peanuts? Back when Daphne du Maurier conjured up ornithological horrors with her short story “The Birds,” at least, the threat was posed by bills and beaks instead of bacteria.

Long before Alfred Hitchcock trained them for his big-screen spectacular, “The Birds” came to US radio in two noteworthy productions by the Lux Radio Theatre (20 July 1953) and Escape (10 July 1954). Unlike Hitchcock’s thriller, both radio versions were remarkably faithful to du Maurier’s simple tale of (wo)man versus nature. The 1953 production, starring Herbert Marshall, was probably one of the most imaginatively soundstaged melodramas ever to be presented on the Lux program. The terror generated by an imaginary army of shrieking birds was a veritable tour de fowl in sound effects engineering. Even Marshall had to admit that he was “scarcely the star of the piece when you consider the gulls and the gannets. Villains that they were, they ran the whole show.”

The story of a family under attack in an avian air raid on a remote farmhouse was rendered more intense by the fact that the terrorized characters, like the listener at home, had only the radio to keep them updated to the minute about the world around them. In du Maurier’s “Birds,” tuning in became disquieting, the wireless a source of anxiety to a public dependent on and attuned to the comforting predictability of the precisely timed broadcast schedule:

. . . they’d been giving directions on the wireless. People would be told what to do. And now, in the midst of many problems, he realized that it was dance music only coming over the air. Not Children’s Hour, as it should have been. He glanced at the dial. Yes, they were on the Home Service all right. Dance records. He switched to the Light programme. He knew the reason. The usual programmes had been abandoned. This only happened at exceptional times. Elections, and such. . . .

At six o’clock the records ceased. The time signal was given. . . . Then the announcer spoke. His voice was solemn, grave. . . .

“This is London,” he said, “A national Emergency was proclaimed at four o’clock this afternoon. Measures are being taken to safeguard the lives and property of the population, but it must be understood that these are not easy to effect immediately, owing to the unforeseen and unparalleled nature of the present crisis. . . . The population is asked to remain calm, and not to panic. Owing to the exceptional nature of the emergency, there will be no further transmission from any broadcasting station until seven a.m. tomorrow.” 

They played the National Anthem. Nothing more happened. . . .

Here, as in “The War of the Worlds” (the fictional acount of a war won by airborne bacteria, no less), the silencing of the relied-upon media is even more alarming than the tumult and the shouting it carries into our homes. . . .

On This Day in 1066 and 1939: Two Conquerors Take Language to War

Not being revisited by the nuisances of power failures and coughing fits I suffered recently, I find myself willing to rise to something amounting to a challenge. Tackling the ambiguities of Archibald MacLeish’s verse drama “The Fall of the City,” for instance. Originally broadcast on 11 April 1937, “The Fall” was again presented by the Columbia Workshop on this day, 28 September, in 1939. The world changed considerably during the time elapsed between those two productions, adding urgency to a play about . . . well, about what, really?

I’ve grappled at length with “The Fall” in my dissertation, describing the confusion and frustration of critics who sensed the play to be significant but could neither make sense of it nor find much consensus among each other. Some argued that it wasn’t even a play at all. Apparently anticipating this reception, MacLeish prefaced the published script with the following disclaimer:

“Any introduction is a confession of weakness. This one is no exception. It is written because I am anxious to persuade American poets to experiment with verse plays for radio and because I am quite certain the radio verse play I have written will not persuade them of itself.”

US poets were not too keen on having their precious wares compete with soap commercials. Others believed that their words were best spread among the few rather than being freely disseminated through channels of less-than-pure air. The horrors of WWII shook up a number of ivory towers, drawing out poets like Stephen Vincent Benét and Edna St. Vincent Millay in fighting form. In propagandist poetry, the ultimate test of language was not whether it could move listeners, but whether it could get them moving, whether it could motivate them to fight battles, buy bonds, or save kitchen fat.

While American broadcasters were training announcers (like the proud vocal-talent pictured above) to hawk the products of their corporate sponsors, Fascist Germany had been exploiting the power of the spoken word to turn open-minded individuals into a league of like-minded or mindless lemmings. “The Fall of the City” opened a debate about mass persuasion, about the media’s role in molding opinions and fabricating war. Its ambiguity is rooted in a distrust of the very medium it employed.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the play begins, “This broadcast comes to you from the city,” a town whose downfall is first announced, then actualized. It is talked into being as the figure of a radio announcer stands by to document the unfolding event. MacLeish’s announcer takes listeners to the “central plaza” of this unspecified city to become ear-witnesses to the resurrection of a recently buried woman who, for three consecutive days, appeared before a crowd of spectators, and who now utters a baffling prophesy:

The city of masterless men
Will take a master
There will be shouting then:
Blood after!

Amid the bewildered throng (some 500 people participated in creating the sound of the crowd), reporters and politicians are heard trying to interpret the oracle and to fix upon a plan of action. Is the message to be ignored? Is the prophesied attack to be countered or endured? One orator, holds that “[r]eason and truth” are the weapon of choice:

Let this conqueror come!
Show him no hindrance!
Suffer his flag and his drum!
Words . . . win!

His words are powerful enough to have people dancing in the streets—until another speaker convinces them to go into battle. While this exchange of words and changing of minds is going on, the talked-of invader—a hollow suit of armor—takes over and the masses surrender. Unlike William the Conqueror—who, on this day in 1066, made Anglo-Saxon words bow to French langue—he does not have to utter a single syllable to make a message-mangled city fall, its “masterless men” happy to have “found a master.”

Summing up this war of words, the announcer remarks that the “people invent their oppressors: they wish to believe in them.” Are these words to be taken for the author’s? If oppressors are inventions—a notion not going over well with some of MacLeish’s contemporaries—then who is to be entrusted with the power to use or control the media capable of creating such alleged fictions?

It seems that MacLeish was apprehensive about the uniformity of thought produced by broadcast speech. It made his own attempt to invade the medium a troubling undertaking: how to convince your listeners not to take your word for it?

On This Day in 1943: Artist Jean Helion Escapes Into Thin Air

Feeling as miserable as I do right now (the aforementioned cold), I was tempted to abandon the “On This Day” feature and escape the self-imposed strictures of such a format. Then I came across a recording of Words at War that made me decide not to disenthrall myself just yet. I might not have gotten to know Jean Helion, had it not been for the frustrating and inept adaptation of his wartime memoir They Shall Not Have Me, first broadcast on 23 September 1943.

An ambitious literary anthology, Words At War (1943-45) was a class act in American radio propaganda. Produced by the National Broadcasting Company in cooperation with the Council on Books in Wartime, Words at War attempted to dramatize “important war books,” ranging from a clipped version of the home front melodrama Since You Went Away to a dystopian fantasy based on Louis Nizer’s fiercely anti-Teutonic “bible for peace” What to Do With Germany. The series was better suited than situation comedies, variety shows, and horror programs to provide a “living record” of the war and the “things” for which US citizens were called upon to fight. The program promised to be such a “living record,” but individual broadcasts were at times less than viable shorthand memos to the bewildered American public.

In the roughly twenty-five minutes allotted to the dramatization, “They Shall Not Have Me” attempts to recount the story of a French soldier, his imprisonment by the Nazis, and his escape. Neither its melodramatic potential nor its cultural significance was realized by the NBC staff writer at work on Jean Helion’s book. Having faced degradation by the Nazis, Helion now suffered a treatment akin to defacement. Sure, his name was mentioned often enough: “Yes, that is I, Jean Helion, weeping and unashamed like a baby,” the hero addressed the listener at the close of the play. Yet who was this man? Who was Jean Helion? The audience was left in the dark.

Radio actor Les Damon’s impression of the Frenchman, while commendable for its restraint, as it does not attempt to imitate a Gaul accent, already stripped the storyteller of his identity, an identity that motivated Helion to return to his native land to join the fight against German occupation. The script did worse. Emphasizing the supposedly uplifting event of an Allied soldier’s peril and perseverance, it omitted much that makes this individual account of bravery so remarkable and compelling.

Born in 1904, Helion was a French artist who enjoyed transatlantic success as a nonfigurative painter. In 1936, he moved to New York City, where his works had already been shown in a 1933 solo exhibition; among his acquaintances and friends numbered quintessential modernists like Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy. Putting his career on halt in 1940, Helion joined the French army, but soon became a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. He managed to escape in 1942 and made it back to the United States.

Apparently profoundly influenced by his wartime experiences, he not only wrote an account of it (published in 1943) but abandoned abstract for figurative art (such as the untitled 1943 painting shown above), thereby rupturing his integrity and risking his reputation. None of this is being captured by Kenneth White’s radio rendering of Helion’s story, which was essentially reduced to an undistinguished yarn of capture and getaway—a single man going free while thousands remained under Nazi occupation, a man who felt disenchanted and betrayed by the country he sought to serve. The situation in France left unimproved after his courageous effort to liberate what he believed to have been his home, is the story of escape artist Helion one of failure or triumph? Unfortunately, the adaptation lacks the intelligence to make use of such ambiguities.

I am grateful to old-time radio for the many literary and artistic encounters it has made possible by all these impossible foreshortenings. Such broadcasts instruct in their very failure to inform; that is, as long as the frustrated listener remains willing to supplement what was being tossed piecemeal across the airwaves. As it turns out, Helion’s paintings are now being exhibited (until 9 October 2005) at the National Academy in Manhattan, just around the corner from my former abode. Even when dwelling in the remotest corners of “unpopular culture,” there is always a personal connection waiting to be established.

On This Day in 1941: Carl Sandburg Talks (to) the People

Well, the castellan is back in his element, which is air, preferably arid. Surely it is not water. I am still drying out—coughing, sneezing, and slowly recovering—from the why-not folly of riding a rollercoaster on a rain-soaked night in Blackpool, England. Listening to the soundwaves of old broadcasts seems a comparatively safer contact with the air—and a more edifying one at that—than having one’s aged bones twirled and one’s addled brains twisted in a series of gravity-defying thrill rides. Yet while there might have been little instruction in this bathetic experience of fairground gothics, there still was a thought to be distilled thereafter from the confines of my soused cranium. It was the thought of one who stood by in spirit that night, one taking notes while passing through a sea of everyday people; it was a passing thought of one once known as the people’s poet, America’s Carl Sandburg.

A while ago, I asked what a soundscape of Britain might turn out to be, if ever there were such an exhibition devoted to regional noise. The voicescape of the United Kingdom has been quite thoroughly mapped since then, with the BBC’s voices project capturing the diverse accents of the British Isles in hundreds of recordings now online, including a group of Blackpool Romany. For anyone moving here with memories of Dick Van Dyke Cockney, finding everyday British voices charted like this is a revelation (even though I doubt whether my own German high school English gone Nu Yawk and Wales is represented in this mix). Carl Sandburg, who set out to render and represent the thought and speech of the American every(wo)man in the 1920s and ‘30s, might have embraced such a charting of diction—even though a map like this still calls for the voice of a poet to make it sing and signify. Sandburg attempted just that.

On this day in 1941, when the United States anxiously eyed a United Kingdom at war, Sandburg addressed American radio listeners on the long-running Cavalcade of America program in an effort to celebrate a unified diversity. The play, “Native Land,” opened with words read by actor Burgess Meredith, who reminded all tuning in of the timeliness of the lines to follow:

Monday, September 22, 1941. A number on a calendar, arrived at after a million years of watching the stars, of telling the time of harvest by a shadow foreshortening, and the time of planting by the sun in the equinox. September 22, 1941. We will start at the beginning; for the beginning was the land and the stars moving overhead. And that is today, this week, the land America—a beginning. And the land is what people have made of it, what people are making of it in this fourth week of September. . . .

The ensuing broadcast, which interwove excerpts of Sandburg’s verse with its author’s autobiography, expounded on the thought that a “poet must do a lot of listening before he begins to talk.”

“Where do we get these languages?” Sandburg wondered, as actor’s voiced snippets from everyday speech picked up on the streets of the poet’s home turf, Chicago. Now that the “people in cities had forgotten the old sayings,” they “talked a new lingo,” a vocal vibrancy to which the program was meant to be an anything-but-mute testimonial. The voices of the people were worth preserving, the broadcast suggested. Yet, with war in the offing, a task larger than one to be undertaken by a librarian and curator of sounds was at hand—the preservation of the people itself.

In keeping with the at times sanctimonious patriotics of the DuPont-sponsored Cavalcade program, the broadcast concluded with Sandburg’s appropriation of words from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Annual Message to Congress (1 December 1862); they were, Sandburg remarked, “Lincoln words for now, for this hour”:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

In his own words compiled and adapted from his 1936 voice-collage The People, Yes, Sandburg insisted in cautious optimism that the “learning and blundering people will live on”:

This old anvil,
the people, yes,
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers. . . .

Today, in our own “stormy present,” the internet has become the new smithy of thought. It is the workshop in which the “old anvil” is sounded anew, where people may “think anew” and speak anew, not only to suit new cases, but to revisit old. Now, I wonder whether my own language is suited to the task to revisit and reacquaint, whether I should not spent more time listening before speaking.

It sure felt comforting to hop on the rollercoaster in Blackpool, just to scream and laugh for a change. Queer and quaint, my verbiage seems ill-chosen at times to communicate my thoughts, to argue my cases old and new. . . . Still, it is my tongue, and I must have it out.

Agatha Christie and Mutual: The Case of the Airlifted Detective

Well, my gray cells had little to do with it, mes amis. Once again, coming up with the facts merely required some amateur sleuthing inside the ever-widening web. Both Agatha Christie (the Dame who gave birth to Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple) and the Mutual Broadcasting System (the network that delivered The Lone Ranger and The Shadow) came into being on 15 September, albeit decades apart. It was in the stars that the two would team up some day, but the meeting itself proved a not altogether fortuitous one.

Christie, whose Mousetrap opened in 1952 and just won’t shut, is still the most widely known exponent of the British whodunit. Her novels, particularly those involving her two most celebrated detectives—Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot—are frequently adapted for television. Such page-to-screen transfers rarely turn out to my satisfaction. A cleverly convoluted whodunit is best enjoyed at one’s own leisure, allowing ample time for the careful consideration of clues and an occasional consultation of one’s own roster of likely suspects.

Dramatizations dictate the duration of this experience, turning the reader-detective into a mere observer of the fictional one at work. Sure, there are pause and rewind buttons to be touched if one is not pressed for time or pressured by fellow viewers; but technological gadgetry gets in the way of the pleasures derived from being absorbed in the chase for the culprit. This was hardly the only problem mystery lovers faced when Hercule Poirot was airlifted to America back in 1945.

Listeners tuning in to the premier broadcast (22 February 1945) were greeted with the following promise:

From the thrill-packed pages of Agatha Christie’s unforgettable stories of corpses, clues and crime, Mutual now brings you, complete with bowler hat and brave mustache, your favorite detective, Hercule Poirot, starring Harold Huber, in “The Case of the Careless Victim.”

The Poirot impersonated by Huber, a character actor who had screen-tested his affected French accent in Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo, was far removed from the “unforgettable”—and very British—stories conceived by Christie. Indeed, this Poirot, sent overseas for a series of “American adventures,” was nothing but an impostor. And the very authority who was called upon to offer her endorsement, the famed authoress herself, acknowledged as much in her peculiar shortwaved message from London:

I feel that this is an occasion that would have appealed to Hercule Poirot. He would have done justice to the inauguration of this radio program, and he might even have made it seem something of an international event. However, as he’s heavily engaged on an investigation, about which you will hear in due course, I must, as one of his oldest friends, deputize for him. The great man has his little foibles, but really, I have the greatest affection for him. And it is a source of continuing satisfaction to me that there has been such a generous response to his appearance on my books, and I hope that his new career on the radio will make many new friends for him among a wider public.

So, who then was being washed onto America’s shores if the great detective was engaged elsewhere? As I put it in Etherized Victorians, Christie’s preface attempted at once to sanction the broadcast fraud and to distinguish such ersatz from the authentic portrait only the artist friend of the “great man” himself could render. It was a case of careless writing—but listeners to the spurious, anonymously penned misadventures that followed refused to be victimised.

Suffice it to say that the series died quickly, quietly, and largely unlamented, whereas the happily separated partners in crime—Mutual and Christie—continued their respective careers for decades to come.

On This Day in 1939: The Folks at 79 Wistful Vista Channel Wimpole Street

Heavenly days! Thanks to modern-day technology (and, I suppose, a surplus of leisure) I have unearthed a spiritual bond that, thus far, has escaped literary scholars and old-time radio enthusiasts alike. Now it can be told: on this day, 12 September, the broadcast antics of Fibber McGee and Molly strangely intersect with the romance of Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elisabeth Barrett. Yes, on this day, both couples eloped—the Wimpole Street escapees in 1846 and the whimsical everybodies from Wistful Vista in 1924.

The latter celebrated their lucky breakout on their 15th wedding anniversary by attempting to restage the happy event—an elopement without the fuss of being detected and chased by opposing elders. Yet despite the blessings of their high-toned neighbor, society lady Abigail Uppington—who assured them that the “affair” would “never be criticized,” even though the couple was “unchased”—the folly of it all resulted in a series of outrageous and none too enchanting complications. Well, the whole thing was Fibber’s idea to begin with . . .

One of the earliest and most successful situation comedies on US radio, Fibber McGee and Molly (1935-59) sounds still remarkably fresh today, thanks to the witty scripts by Don Quinn (whose Halls of Ivy is the ne plus ultra in radio sitcom sophistication) and the winning performances of its leads. And while it’s no collection of “Dramatic Monologues” or “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (“How do I love thee” and all that), the aural comedy-romance Quinn whipped up each week is no mere escapist fluff. “Tain’t funny, McGee”—Molly exclaimed often enough, suggesting more serious undertones not picked up by those merely hoping for an amusing half-hour.

After all, both the Brownings and the McGees inspired great thinkers. As Garrison Keillor recalls in WLT: A Radio Romance), the Norwegian philosopher Søren Blak argued the “boastful Fibber” to be a “paradigm of western man”; his “famous loaded closet” (which first opened to listeners some six months after the McGee’s 15th wedding anniversary), “represented civilization and all its flotsam and loose baggage, while the childlike voice of Molly, bringing the man back to reality,” seemed to be “the voice of culture in its deepest and most profound incarnation, that of the adored Mother, the Goddess of Goodness, the great Herself.”

Alas, the McGees have been all but buried under the “flotsam and loose baggage” of popular culture, erstwhile idols hidden beneath the rubble that is the empire of the air.  No, “tain’t funny, McGee!” And yet, however muffled their voices, the heartbeats of Wistful Vista’s winsome twosome still reverberate among those ruins (as you can hear).

“Oh heart!” Robert Browning mused on an off day (in his own “Love Among the Ruins”),

oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole century of folly, noise, and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.

So, happy anniversary, Molly and Fibber!

Flinging the Book: Archibald MacLeish, the Airwaves, and the Anniversary of Atahuallpa’s Death

Well, I thought I’d better carry on with my Spanish lessons, having discovered, upon leafing through the travel guides, that I am not merely linguistically challenged but culturally ignorant as well.

 According to one guidebook (admittedly, a someone dated volume), the citizens of Madrid—the madrileños—have a “lingering suspicion of foreigners” and are reluctant to speak English. Granted, it’s been a while since conquistadors rather than tourists filled Spain’s coffers, but the Spaniards have been known to be somewhat insensitive when it comes to other cultures. There sure is dirt under the old welcome mat.

On this day in 1533, for instance, Francisco Pizarro put an end to the Incan empire by doing away with emperor Atahuallpa. The Incas were not a chirographic people and did not appreciate having the book flung at them—especially not the good book. Intrigued by the thought that the demise of the Inca meant not only the loss of their aureate treasures but of their aural tradition, I flung my travel guides aside and tuned in again to one of the more ambitious if lesser known American radio series of the 1940s, Archibald MacLeish’s American Story.

MacLeish (above, right, in my impression of an image taken from Irving Settel’s Pictorial History of Radio), Pulitzer Prize winner for his poem Conquistador (1933), was one of the first American writers to take radio seriously and to encourage others to emerge from their ivory towers by broadcasting their choice words to the masses. After all, he remarked in the foreword to The Fall of the City, his first and most significant contribution to the aural arts, “what poet ever lived who was really satisfied with writing the thin little books to lie on the front parlor tables?”

As a Librarian of Congress, MacLeish enjoyed ready access to many an obscure document—and radio offered an opportunity of sharing this wealth of unheard words. Rather than dramatizing scenes from history books, MacLeish wanted to let ancient texts speak for themselves:

To place historical personages in historical situations and then imagine the words they must have spoken to each other is to imitate the historical dramas of the stage at the expense of radio’s unique function and unique opportunity. Because radio is limited mechanically to sound, and particularly to the sound of speech, radio is capable of a concentration upon the speech itself, the text itself, which can give words a life and a significance they rarely achieve outside the printed page—and which they achieve there only for the most gifted and fortunate readers.

In “The Many Dead,” one of the scripts for the American Story series, MacLeish drew on the writings of Pizarro’s secretary Francisco de Xeres to recount the death of emperor Atahuallpa. In order to convey this sobering story without turning it into sensational melodrama, the poet-historian chose to deliver the “pertinent excerpts” of Xeres’s official account in the somber and matter-of-fact voice of a clerk, a newscaster of his time:

The Governor [Pizarro] asked the Father Friar Vicente if he wished to go and speak to Atahuallpa with an interpreter. He replied that he did wish it, and he advanced with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other [. . .] and [. . .] thus addressed him: “I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like matter I come to teach you. What I teach is that which God says to us in this Book [. . .].”

Atahuallpa asked for the book that he might look at it, and the priest gave it to him closed. Atahuallpa did not know how to open it, and the Priest was extending his arm to do so, when Atahuallpa, in great anger, gave him a blow on the arm, not wishing that it should be opened [. . .]. Then he opened it himself, and, without any astonishment at the letters and paper, as had been shown by other Indians, he threw it away form him five or six paces . . . .

Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.
Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.

According to Xeres’s account, Pizarro and his men “fearlessly seized” Atahuallpa and the infantry of the Spaniards “made so good an assault” on the fleeing natives that “in a short time most of them were put to the sword.” Pizarro was said to have protected the emperor from the Spaniards—to give him the benefit of a proper execution—and was slightly wounded as a result. “It was a very wonderful thing,” the clerk concludes, “to see so great a lord taken prisoner in so short a time [. . .].”

The men with the books have generally proved victorious over the vocal but readily muted thinkers who spread their words without the benefit of the printing press. Atahuallpa, bereft of his voice after rejecting the book, chose death by strangulation. Even MacLeish, as Librarian of Congress, largely failed in his attempt to return written records to the air and revive the breath that gave them life. Who, after all, still listens to his American Story today?

Now, I hear that the madrileños are a noisy, boisterous people; perhaps the powerful, silencing, and not-so-good book instilled them with confidence. . . .

The (T)error of Their Ways: Conrad, Hitchcock, and the Aftermath of the London Bombings

He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the image of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.

Thus ends Joseph Conrad’s long-in-the-works novel The Secret Agent. First published in 1920, the story had been conceived decades earlier, inspired by the terrorist bombings that took place in London during the 1880s and 1890s. In particular, it was the infamous 1894 attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory that served as a plot for Conrad’s narrative.

While based on events that occurred well over a century ago, the above passage could describe any suicide bomber today. Of this—Conrad’s The Secret Agent and its obvious connections to the recent acts of terror in London—I was forcefully reminded when I screened Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 thriller Sabotage last night. I had not seen this film in years and, being unprepared, was startled by its up-to-dateness.

Even though Hitchcock was not particularly pleased with it, Sabotage is one of his most mature earlier thrillers. It has none of the adventure or intrigue of his better known pre-Hollywood films, such as the seminal but perhaps overrated caper The Thirty-Nine Steps; nor does it have the romance and humor of his lesser efforts, such as Rich and Strange or Young and Innocent. Instead, it offers a portrait of a terrorist so stark, so dark, so nearly naturalistic that it remains startling today.

Hitchcock claims to have regretted the scene in which the innocent young boy, Stevie, the brother of the terrorist’s young wife, is blown up while unknowingly delivering a bomb as instructed by his stepfather. Compared to the inane Hollywood endings we are still expected to endure—such as the infuriatingly contrived reunion of Tom Cruise’s character with his teenage son in The War of the Worlds—Hitchcock’s Sabotage comes across as relentlessly true-to-life. According to the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, characters with whom we identify are not generally blown to bits—especially not children.

The reality of our everyday, however, does not heed such conventions. The innocent are victimized without remorse, either by indiscriminate terrorists or their persecutors, as the story of Jean Charles de Menezes, wrongfully shot as a terrorist suspect, forcefully drove home in recent weeks; his story continues to unfold as the probing into his death lays bare some of the criminal errors of anti-terrorist actions.

Hitchcock always enjoyed telling the story of The Wrong Man—innocent people unjustly pursued by the authorities the director had dreaded since childhood. During the chase that is essentially the Hitchcock experience, our sympathies are more often directed toward the hunted than the hunter, encouraging us to reexamine established roles of criminal and persecutor, to question our definition of justice.

Sabotage tells the story of flawed and guilty people—the saboteur, who risks a boy’s life to carry out his mission of destruction, and his young wife, sister of the victim, who ends up stabbing her husband in revenge, despair, or sheer confusion (this is being left ambiguous). Even the boy—whom we catch early breaking a plate and filching a bit of food—is not altogether innocent; his tardiness and negligence contribute to his death. Killer, victims, and hapless messenger alike are sentenced to death brought on by ruthlessness and ignorance. Only a combination of knowledge and ethics, of smarts and decency, can save those caught in the web of terror that is our everyday.

Spotting “The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek”; or, The Free Company We Didn’t Keep

My headphones have been buried so deeply in the sands of time that I have only recently begun to pay attention to the mission of Cindy Sheehan, to the anti-war movement she seems to have reinvigorated, and to the controversy she is stirring by insisting on talking to the US president at his ranch down in Texas. The American home front is showing signs of battle fatigue. Well, perhaps the phrase “home front,” so commonly used during World War II, is inappropriate these days, considering the lack of universal support the Iraq-centered war on terror has been receiving.

Expressions of frustration, confusion, and anger seem to become more forceful and frequent as, after years of fighting, both the end of the war and the ends of it remain uncertain. Is it illusory or perhaps even misguided to hope for a voice of reason to unite the masses, a voice not strident yet unequivocal, not irate but assertive, not jingoistic but inspirational? Radio once seemed to have given nations such a voice, but was often in danger of becoming the medium of fascism.

Unlike those who go indifferently about their business while being mute beneficiaries of democratic freedoms, few protesters would deny that American ideals are worth fighting for in words and actions; indeed, people like Sheehan, a mother who lost her son in combat, are fighting for the realization of such ideals by insisting on publicly voicing their concerns, concerns that by now are shared even by many of those responsible for the reelection of the US president in 2004.

The question on the minds of many Americans and their allies today is, of course, whether the war in Iraq has in any constructive way contribute to the defense of their freedoms or whether it might not have further endangered them either directly (through increasing acts of global terrorism) or indirectly (through anti-terrorist measures curtailing civil liberties).

It is a mistake to assume, however, that, in 1942, US citizens were any more united about going to war then they are now, or that they had a clearer understanding of the stakes and aims of such an enterprise. As I learned from Gerd Horten’s book Radio Goes to War, a government survey revealed that half of those questioned just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor were not even sure what the war was about. Many had been convinced to embrace an isolationist position. Media tycoon Randolph Hearst was one of the most influential figures to warn Americans that war was bad because it was not good for business. And radio was big business.

Back then, noted American playwrights, journalists, and novelists spoke up against isolationist—that is anti-war—propaganda, reminding citizens that inertia could mean surrender to fascism, that there are nearly as many wrong reasons for not going to war than they are for engaging in it. One such group of artists who set out to inspire the American public in the months prior to Pearl Harbor was the Free Company, a “group of leading writers, actors and radio workers who had “come together voluntarily to express their faith in American democracy.” They were “unpaid, unsponsored and uncontrolled. Just a group of Americans saying what they [thought] about [America] and about freedom.” And they chose a commerce-driven medium like radio to bring their point across.

As Burgess Meredith told the radio audience of Marc Connelly’s play “The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek”: “Our freedom [ . . . ] has this meaning . . . that here, in our land, the truth may be taught, always.” He urged Americans to “resist all attempt to suppress truth or to distort it. Let us consider again,” he continued,

the most powerful words ever spoken against the enemies of man—the lightning-charged words of Lincoln at Gettysburg. And let us renew, in this threatening hour, his high resolve that the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Could a group like the Free Company—which consisted of Pulitzer Prize winners including Maxwell Anderson, Archibald MacLeish, Stephen Vincent Benét, Marc Connelly, and Paul Green—unite for a series of radio (or television) broadcasts today to unite a largely disillusioned people divided by confusion and cynicism, a people more eager to expose the mole on Lincoln’s cheek than to conceal it? Would they deem a continuation of the present war unjustifiable or argue a withdrawal from Iraq to be a surrender to terrorism? And just how open would a skeptical public be to any effort to “resist all attempts to suppress truth or to distort it,” how willing to accept any attempts to achieve a consensus?