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”

” . . . the way of all flesh, material or imaginary”: Conan Doyle at 150

“Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.” That is how Arthur Conan Doyle, not long before his own death in 1930, announced to his readers that he would put an end to his most robust brainchild, the by now all but immortal Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, the figure continues to overshadow every aspect of Dr. Doyle’s career, literary or otherwise. Perhaps, “upstage” is a more precise way of putting it, considering that the venerable sleuth was to enjoy such success in American and British radio drama from the early 1930s to the present day.

“One likes to think that there is some fantastic limbo for the children of imagination,” Doyle assuaged those among his readers who found it difficult to accept that Holmes’s departure was merely “the way of all flesh.”

To be sure, the earlier incident at the Reichenbach Falls suggested that Holmes was impervious to threats of character assassination, that he could reappear, time and again, in the reminiscences of Doctor Watson. Still, Doyle’s intention to do away with Holmes so early in the detective’s literary career had been no mere publicity stunt. Rather than feeling obliged to supply the public with the puzzles they craved, the author felt that his “energies should not be directed too much into one channel.”

One of the lesser-known alternative channels considered by Doyle has just been reopened for inspection. Today, 22 May, on the 150th anniversary of Doyle’s birth in 1859, BBC Radio Scotland aired “Vote for Conan Doyle!” a biographical sketch “specially commissioned” to mark the occasion. In it, writer and Holmes expert Bert Coules relates how, in 1900, Doyle embarked on a career in politics. He decided to stand for parliament; but the devotees of Sherlock Holmes would not stand for it.

Coules’s play opens right where Doyle had first intended to wash his hands of Holmes—at the Reichenbach Falls. No matter how sincere Doyle was in improving the Empire’s image and the plight of the British’s troops during the Second Boer War, the push hardly met with the approval of the reading public. “How could you!” “How dare you!” “You brute!” the public protested.

Although it was not this perceived case of filicide that did him in, Doyle proved unsuccessful in his campaign—and that despite support from Dr. Bell, who served as an inspiration for Holmes. After his defeat, Doyle “bowed to the inevitable—and back the man came.”

When the The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1927, Doyle dropped the man once more, albeit in a gentler fashion. To assuage loyal followers, he fancied Holmes and Watson in some “humble corner” of the “Valhalla” of British literature. Little did he know that the “fantastic limbo” in which the two were to linger would be that in-between realm of radio, a sphere removed from both stage and page—but nearer than either to the infinite “O” between our ears.

It hardly surprises that, Radio Scotland’s efforts to get out the “Vote for” and let us walk “In the Footsteps of Conan Doyle” aside, most of the programs presumably devoted to Doyle are concerned instead with “The Voice of Sherlock Holmes” and the “Game” that is “Afoot” when thespians like Cedric Hardwicke, John Gielgud, Carleton Hobbs and Clive Merrison approach the original. It is not Doyle’s life that is celebrated in these broadcasts, but Holmes’s afterlife.

True, to the aficionados of Doyle’s fiction, Sherlock Holmes has never been in need of resuscitation. Yet, as Jeffrey Richards remarked in “The Voice” (first aired in 1998),

[r]adio has always been a particularly effective medium for evoking the world of Holmes and Watson. The clatter of horses hoofs on cobbled streets, the howl of the wind on lonely moors, and the sinister creaks and groans of ancient manor houses steeped in history and crime.

The game may be afoot once more when Holmes returns to the screen this year; but, outside the pages that could never quite contain him, it is the “fantastic limbo” of radio that kept the Reichenbach Falls survivor afloat. It is for the aural medium—the Scotland yardstick for fidelity in literary adaptation—that all of his cases have been dramatized and that, in splendid pastiches like “The Abergavenny Murder,” the figure of Sherlock Holmes has remained within earshot all these years.

Related writings
“‘What monstrous place is this?’: Hardy, Holmes, and the Secrets of Stonehenge”
“Radio Rambles: Cornwall, Marconi, and the ‘Devil’s Foot’”
Old Sleuth Re-emerges in New Medium for American Ho(l)mes

Seems Mr. Corwin Is Here to Stay

Let’s start by setting forth
That it is good to take a swig of fancy every now and then,
A nip or two of wonderment,
To jag the mind.

It’s good to send your thoughts excursioning
Beyond the paved and well-worn alleys of your life
If only as a form of exercise
[. . .]

The man who prescribed this “form of exercise” in “Seems Radio Is Here to Stay” some seventy years ago, back in April 1939, is producer-director-writer Norman Corwin. Today, he turns 99. Radio’s foremost playwright was forced, however, to take the exercise outside the medium he loved. By the late-1940s, there was no room in US radio for “excursioning,” and a frustrated Corwin advised anyone who wanted to “make a living from radio” to be “mediocre.” The “writer who wants to do the best work in his power, in defiance of formula, I say: Forget radio.”

Corwin insisted that he was writing “neither with cynicism, anger, nor contempt.”

My only emotion is that of sadness for an old friend, now bedridden, who has been kind and generous to many writers, including me. The disease is probably incurable. Radio may well die, as a cultural force, of the after-effects of the childbirth of television. The complications are greed, venality and social irresponsibilities. Its spawn, the half-breed that is neither pictures nor radio but both, is already devouring everything around it, an omniphage chomping steadily into the economy of books, sports, movies and radio itself.

No, Corwin was not about to defect, like radio’s talent, sponsors and audiences, to the rivaling medium of television. Unless its producers were ready to “apply as much money and time to serious experimentation on the level of the old Columbia Workshop,” he would “continue to be more interested in radio, films, and print.” To a dramatist concerned with the play of ideas, television had “neither the full scope and mobility of cinema, the immediacy of the legitimate theatre, nor the powerful suggestibility of radio’s unillustrated spoken word.”

It is of this “suggestibility” that the body of Norman Corwin’s work remains one of the most persuasive illustrations.

Related writings
“The Life of Radio: Norman Corwin Turns 97”
“A Mind for Biography: Norman Corwin, ‘Ann Rutledge,’ and Joan Fontaine”
“Magnetic Realism: Norman Corwin’s One World Flight

So to Speke

When not at work on our new old house—where the floorboards are up in anticipation of central heating—we are on the road and down narrow country lanes to get our calloused hands on the pieces of antique furniture that we acquired, in 21st-century style, by way of online auction. In order to create the illusion that we are getting out of the house, rather than just something into it, and to put our own restoration project into a perspective from which it looks more dollhouse than madhouse, we make stopovers at nearby National Trust properties like Chirk Castle or Speke Hall. The latter (pictured above) is a Tudor mansion that, like some superannuated craft, sits sidelined along Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport, formerly known as RAF Speke. The architecture of the Hall, from the openings under the eaves that allowed those within to spy on the potentially hostile droppers-in without to the hole into which a Catholic priest could be lowered to escape Protestant persecution, bespeaks a history of keeping mum.

Some such mystery house with a Tudor past and Victorian interior was of Audley Court, the fictional setting of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational crime novel Lady Audley’s Secret. The hugely popular thriller was first serialized beginning in 1861 and subsequently adapted for the stage. Resuscitated for a ten-part serial currently aired on BBC Radio 4, the eponymous “lady”—a gold digger, bigamist, and arsonist whose ambitions are famously diagnosed as the mark of “latent insanity”—can now be eavesdropped on as she, sounding rather more demure than she appeared to my mind’s ear, attempts to keep up appearances, even if it means having to make her first husband, a gold digger in his own right, disappear down a well.

As if the house, Audley Court, did not have a checkered past of its own—

a house in which you incontinently lost yourself if ever you were so rash as to attempt to penetrate its mysteries alone; a house in which no one room had any sympathy with another, every chamber running off at a tangent into an inner chamber, and through that down some narrow staircase leading to a door which, in its turn, led back into that very part of the house from which you thought yourself the furthest; a house that could never have been planned by any mortal architect, but must have been the handiwork of that good old builder, Time, who, adding a room one year, and knocking down a room another year, [ . . . ] had contrived, in some eleven centuries, to run up such a mansion as was not elsewhere to be met with throughout the county of Essex.

“Of course,” the narrator insists,

in such a house there were secret chambers; the little daughter of the present owner, Sir Michael Audley, had fallen by accident upon the discovery of one. A board had rattled under her feet in the great nursery where she played, and on attention being drawn to it, it was found to be loose, and so removed, revealed a ladder, leading to a hiding-place between the floor of the nursery and the ceiling of the room below—a hiding-place so small that he who had hid there must have crouched on his hands and knees or lain at full length, and yet large enough to contain a quaint old carved oak chest, half filled with priests’ vestments, which had been hidden away, no doubt, in those cruel days when the life of a man was in danger if he was discovered to have harbored a Roman Catholic priest, or to have mass said in his house.

Loose floorboards we’ve got plenty in our own domicile, and room enough for a holy manhole below. It being a late-Victorian townhouse, though, the hidden story we laid bare is that of the upstairs-downstairs variety. At the back, in the part of the house where the servants labored and lived, there once was a separate staircase, long since dismantled. It was by way of those steep steps that the maid, having performed her chores out of the family’s sight and earshot, withdrew, latently insane or otherwise, into the modest quarters allotted to her. I wonder whether she read, if indeed she read at all, Lady Audley’s Secret, and whether she read it as a cautionary tale or an inspirational one—as the story of a woman who dared to rewrite her own destiny:

“No more dependency, no more drudgery, no more humiliations,” Lucy exclaimed secretly, “every trace of the old life melted away—every clue to identity buried and forgotten—except . . .

. . . that wedding ring, wrapped in paper. It’s enough to make a priest turn in his hole.

Dwelling on the Subject: The House in the Child

How insignificant, at the moment, seem the influences of the sensible things which are tossed and fall and lie about us, so, or so, in the environment of early childhood. How indelibly, as we afterwards discover, they affect us; with what capricious attractions and associations they figure themselves on the white paper, the smooth wax, of our ingenuous souls, as “with lead in the rock for ever,” giving form and feature, and as it were assigned house-room in our memory, to early experiences of feeling and thought, which abide with us ever afterwards, thus, and not otherwise.

It was Walter Pater’s “The Child in the House” that gave me the idea for a title; but it was my history of habitation that made me write The House in the Child, a fictionalized autobiography. I received some sort of graduate prize for submitting a fragment of it, a rather generous acknowledgement of the pain it took to attempt its construction—and fail. Now that I am quite preoccupied with the impending move—a subject that, to recycle a line from “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “dwells in my mind so”—it occurred to me just how long the concept of dwelling has been on my mind, that maze of memories Pater calls the brain-building.

The House in the Child was never finished; and that is just as it should be, for the house was never finished with me. The foundation for the narrative was a sense of dislocation and the absence of private space—living abroad, with a dinner table as a study, wondering what “home” meant. Thinking about the past, it came home to me that my family had been destroyed by the ambition of building that house. And yet, retreating into my own room (a luxury denied me during much of my adulthood) and the hidden realm of thought, I had done so little to keep the architecture of domesticity from falling apart.

Writing about myself—this most self-serving of literary endeavors—offered me a chance at revision, a chance to think of myself as someone who was not always thinking of himself first. I was not this child, but I might have been:

She points at the colorful map drawn neatly with crayons—red, blue, and green. Mostly red, though, because it makes everything look more significant and urgent somehow, like a warning label. On the map, the house looks like a castle, with chambers and vaults, corridors and hidden passageways. Everything’s angular and crooked, like in a real maze. A map can make any place important even if it really needs no map at all. The new house is much too small, really—too plain, straight, and square. Nobody gets lost in a bungalow. But this drawing was not supposed to make it all clearer and plainer. It was meant to add the mystery and adventure the whole place lacked from the start.

There is still so much to unpack; but she needs to rest for a moment, anyway; and so she sits right here, glancing at this piece of paper.

“Everything’s set up nicely, don’t you think? You kids will love it. No more fighting about space and privacy, no more arguing about what goes where. Now, let me see.”

She plays the game well, slowly following the paths with her finger, studying the map as if it really were the floor plan to an enormous fortress.

Maybe she enjoys this moment because she is just as disenchanted with her new home as . . .

“Ah, here we are. This is your room. Your sister’s room is next to it . . . right here, see? And somewhere down here, in the basement, is the workroom. And you know who’s going to spend most of his free time in there. Then there is our bedroom, straight across this hallway, here. This is what we always wanted, isn’t it? We’re all going to have our own rooms now.”

All except she. She does not have a place to herself, like we all do. What is her place? Where can she go to close the door? She has to sleep with him at night.

Maybe that’s why she keeps staring at the map, examining it as if she were looking for a vacant space to rest her eyes. Maybe she holds on to this plan because it promises a hiding place not to be found elsewhere—not provided for in our house. Maybe that’s why her finger keeps running up and down the paths, back and forth, back and forth, like a mouse trapped in a labyrinth.

Finally, she lets go, gets up, and turns out the light.

“You can always come here, Mutti.” But she has already closed the door—and she did not take the map . . .

“I pulled and she shook”: A Décor to Try One’s Decorum

All right, so I’m sounding like an aging burlesque queen about to toss her tassels and turn in the g-string that is a turn-on no longer—but, by Gypsy, I am tired of stripping. Wallpaper, I mean. This old Mazeppa has nothing but a scraper for a gimmick, and the only hand she ever got for all her grinding is a mighty sore one. I just could not live with it, though, that dreadful pattern—having it stare me down in defiance, berate me for letting myself be defeated by all the work that needs doing in the old house we plan on inhabiting before long. The idea (not mine, mind) was to paint over it—but I scratched that faster than I could scrape. It might peep out from behind the paint, that ghastly design. It might start to creep up on me if I don’t get at it first—just like that most famous of all interior decorating nightmares, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). To date, Gilman’s feminist tale of terror is the most convincing argument for taking it all off.

To the tormented soul telling the story, the paper she finds in her room—the room in which she is meant to rest—becomes a “constant irritant.” Within a few short weeks of studying it, for want of the intellectual activity denied to her, she is driven to the distraction once classified as hysteria:

The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. 

You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.

Unlike the blank, “dead” paper on which she writes in secret, the wallpaper is teeming with life, just below the surface. It is the surface of conventions that Gilman tears down with a vengeance:

This bed will not move! 

I tried to lift and push it until I was lame, and then I got so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner—but it hurt my teeth. 

Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!

In Gilman’s story, the act of ripping and scratching is a failed self-rescue mission. The narrator discerns a figure behind the pattern (“I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled”), but is unable to extricate herself from the imposition of being a pattern of middle-class propriety.

Listeners to CBS’s Suspense program may have felt rather differently about this schizophrenic battle when it was enacted by Agnes Moorehead, who, in tackling the part, has to struggle as well with our memories of the neurotic and disagreeable Mrs. Elbert Stevenson, her most famous Suspense role. “Sorry, Wrong Paper,” I kept thinking as I witnessed the disintegration. And yet, as the hard and cutting echoes of Mrs. Stevenson suggest, paper can beat both rock and scissors—a thought that filled me with renewed terror.

“It dwells in my mind so!” Gilman’s character remarks, tellingly, about the dreaded wall covering. The dwelling has overmastered the dweller, like a wild animal resisting domestication, a beast beyond paper training. The prospect of being dominated or possessed in this way by a questionable décor is a scenario horrifying enough for me to put penknife to paper . . . and strip.

“Alone Together”: A Portrait of the Artist as an Artist’s Spouse

“So, here he is. My father. In a churchyard in the furthest tip of Llŷn. Eighty years old. Wild hair blowing in the wind. Overcoat that could belong to a tramp. Face like something hewn out of stone, staring into the distance.” The man observing is Gwydion, the middle-aged son of R. S. Thomas (1913-2000)—“Poet. Priest. Birdwatcher. Scourge of the English. The Ogre of Wales.” With this terse description opens Neil McKay’s “Alone Together,” a radio play first aired last Sunday on BBC Radio 3 (and available online until 28 March).

The voice of the Nobel Prize nominated poet (as portrayed by Jonathan Pryce) is heard reading lines from his works, the words that are, to us, a stand-in for the man. None of them escape the commentary of his estranged son: “Yes, you could tell yourself this is him, the real R. S. Thomas,” the observer, filial yet unloving, remarks. “But you’d be entirely wrong.” As his father’s old voice keeps on reciting, he adds: “Oh, he’d be happy enough for you to fall for it . . . and to fall for the version he tells of his own life.”

What compels the son to revise this “version” of a life is the life of another, a figure that, to his mind, is concealed or mispresented in the autobiography of the father. The figure is Elsi, the Welsh poet’s English wife (1909-1991), whose fifty-year-relationship with R. S. was compressed by him in these lines:

She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.

Speaking of their first encounter, R. S. introduces Elsi as “a girl who was lodging fairly close by,” the kind of icy understatement with which Thomas, writing about himself in the third person, kept his distance from his readers, just as the people he knew and wrote about were turned into abstracts on a page. “He doesn’t even give her a name,” the son comments, “and that’s where it starts to unravel.”

The churchyard in which we are introduced to the father is Elsi’s burial place; it is Gwydion’s ambition and quest to bring her to life for us, to let us see her in something other than the austere words of an introverted, discontented, and tormented man—an Anglican rector who sought isolation in the remote west of “the real Wales,” who, advocating Welsh independence and separation from England, was consumed by what the Welsh call “Hiraeth”: a longing for home. In how far did this longing, this radical yet futile attempt at forging an identity alien to him, prevent R. S. from making a home for the two, the three, of them?

Searing, severe, yet profoundly moving, “Alone Together” is a compelling play at biography; listening to it, I was reminded of the above self-portrait of Elsi, who, as an artist, was known as Mildred Eldridge, respected and sought-after long before R. S. published a line of poetry. Until now, whenever I looked at it, hanging there on a wall of our home, I have never considered it as an autobiographical act.

Both their approaches to rendering the self seem indirect, his being the third person singular, hers a reflection. Eldridge does not assume the center of the frame; nor does she give us a close-up of the face in the looking-glass; and yet, her self-portrait, tentative as it may be, allows us a glimpse at her perception. The distant self in her husband’s performance, by comparison, seems a construct, the artifice of an entire controlled performance. Unlike her husband, Eldridge appears before us the first person singular, letting us see her as only she sees herself: a mirror image.

In how far are written or spoken words a path to—or a vessel for—the essence of the one writing or speaking? Is anyone knowable through the vocables that are a locum for self and experience? Cautioned not to take a father’s word for whatever “it” amounts to verity, can we now trust the estranged son in his voice-over, his over-writing of the words he claims to be false or misleading?

“Alone Together” suggests that, for all his accomplishments as a writer, R. S. Thomas—who yearned to be Welsh but could not speak it, who, as Elsi puts it, “adopted the vowels of an Oxford Don” to hide the shame of being, as he puts it, an “ignorant Taff from Cardiff”—envied the ease with which his accomplished artist wife communicated in a language beyond words, expressed herself freely on a blank canvas . . . and felt at home there.