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.)

“. . . there must come a special understanding”: To Corwin at 100

Today, American journalist and radio playwright Norman Corwin turns 100. Whether that makes him the oldest living writer to have had a career in radio I leave it to fact-checkers and record book keepers to determine. I do know that, seventy years ago, he was already the best. Oldest. Best. Why not dispense with superlatives? Corwin has been set apart for too long. Instead, an appreciation of his work calls for the positive and the comparative, as his plays deserve to be regarded at last alongside the prose and poetry of his better-known literary contemporaries.

No survey of 20th-century American literature can be deemed representative, let alone definitive, without the inclusion of some of Corwin’s Whitmanesque performances. What has kept him from being ranked among the relevant and influential writers of the 1940s, and of the war years in particular, is the fact that, during those years, Corwin wrote chiefly for a medium that, however relevant and influential, was—and continues to be—treated like a ghetto of the arts in America.

You might argue that the metaphor is not altogether apt, especially if you bear in mind the distinguished authors and playwrights who did turn to—or agreed to be pulled into—broadcasting during the Second World War; among them poets Archibald MacLeish, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Stephen Vincent Benét, as well as dramatists like Maxwell Anderson, Marc Connelly, and Sherwood Anderson. And yet, even their scripts are rarely acknowledged to be contributions to literature, the American airwaves being thought of as a cultural site quite beyond that field.

At best, dramatic writings for radio are handled as historical documents that, by virtue of being propagandist or populist, could hardly be regarded as having artistic merit or integrity. As something other—and less—than literature, they were as quickly obliterated as they were produced, stricken from the records so as not to tarnish the reputation of erstwhile writer-recruits most of whom exited the radio camp well before V-J Day.

Norman Corwin never deserted that camp. Rather, the camp was shut down, raided by McCarthy, all but razed to make way for television. Sporadic returns to the old playing field notwithstanding, he was forced to move on. Yes, the air was—and is—Corwin’s playground. For all their wartimeliness, his 1940s plays were never mere means to an end, even if end is understood to mean an end to the war that gave them a reason for being.

To gain an understanding of that past is not the only good reason for being in the presence of Corwin today. Rather than promoting uniformity, which is a chief aim of propaganda, Corwin’s plays challenge the commonplace, encourage independent thinking and the voicing of ideas thus arrived at. Take “To Tim at Twenty,” for instance. It is hardly one of Corwin’s most complex, ambitious or experimental works for radio; in a note to a fellow writer, published in Norman Corwin’s Letters (1994), the playwright himself described it as “the lowest common denominator of simplicity.” Simplicity, in this case, is an achievement. Quietly startling, “To Tim at Twenty” bespeaks the humanity, intellect, and dignity of its author.

Written for the CBS Forecast series, a string of pilot broadcasts designed to test audience responses to potential new programs, the play first aired on 19 August 1940, when it starred Charles Laughton, for whom “To Tim” was expressly written, and Elsa Lanchester. Newly arrived in California, Corwin was staying at the couple’s Brentwood home at the time.

As he shared in a letter to his sister-in-law, he felt “kind of lonely” in Hollywood, and was “getting tired of singlehood.” In times of war—and to Laughton and Lanchester August 1940 was wartime—the thought of growing up and raising a family is compounded by the realization that the future is darkly uncertain instead of rich in potentialities. So, Mr. Corwin wrote a letter.

To Tim at Twenty is an epistolary play, a radiodramatic genre of partially dramatized speeches addressed to an implied audience. The proxy listener, in this case the unheard Tim, suited Corwin since indirection made whatever was conveyed come across as something other than an act of overt indoctrination. The addressee also provided him with a veil behind which to enact his personal conflicts as he contemplated his maturity, mortality, and legacy.

The letter writer is Tim’s father, a British gunner spending a sleepless night in the “barracks of an RAF squadron on the northeast coast of England”; as the narrator-announcer informs us, he is “leaving at dawn on a mission from which there can be no return.”

Once the United States entered the war, lesser writers, melodramatist Arch Oboler among them, would use this kind of set-up to remind American civilians of the sacrifices made for them overseas, of the bravery that must be honored and matched at the home front. Tim, we expect, is asked to honor his father’s memory. Instead, the letter he is to receive tells him that the men of his father’s generation “haven’t made out any too well” in the business of “the running of the earth.”

At the time the letter is composed, Tim is just five years old. His father made a “special point” of asking his wife “not to deliver” it until 1955, at which time he might have had the “man to man” talk with his son that war denied him.

Sentimental, seemingly pacifist messages were not unheard of at the time. They were welcomed by isolationists who counted on big business as usual—and commercial radio, which shunned the controversial, was very big business indeed; but “To Tim at Twenty” suggests something alien to those determined to preserve the status quo. Instead, the belated address of the Englishmen, who knows better than to have faith in things as they are, is meant to instill his son—and Corwin’s listeners—with a “fuller appreciation of women.” To Marshall, they are authorities of humanity superior to men because “there must come a special understanding of the dignity of life to those who grow it in their vitals.”

As the dramatic flashbacks reveal, the lessons he shares with his son were taught Marshall by his wife, who suggested that the voices of the many might have drowned the shrill cries of the few, the “wanton wills” that were not countered by “man’s vast raw materials of love and tenderness and courage” in time to avoid deadly conflict. “There are several kinds of valor,” Tim is to learn from his dead father, “and the least is the kind that comes out of the hysteria of battle.”

I suspect that it was easier to write this message in 1940 than it was to understand it in 1955, when America’s leader was a five-star general, when superpowered dominance was the manly objective of the day and the “appreciation of women” was more a matter of the male gaze than of political influence or workforce equality. By then, there was no place for Corwin in network radio. Since his climactic “Note of Triumph” in 1945, to which nearly half of the US population was estimated to have tuned in, his voice has been heard by a comparatively few—the fortunate few who, by lending him an ear, are gaining a “special understanding.”

Crosstown Stitch: Embroidering on a Favorite Subject

Salut au monde!” That is a greeting the narrator of Norman Corwin’s “New York: A Tapestry for Radio” extended to the never quite statistically average American listener—anybody tuning in to the nationally broadcast play cycle Columbia Presents Corwin back during World War II. And that is how I, returned again to my old yet ever changing neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, am reaching out to the potentially even more multifarious roamers of the World Wide Web.

Why Salut, though? Why go for the highfalutin when something lowbrow like hiya would do? After all, French is not among the languages most closely associated with the Big Pomme. Sure, there is that French lady who greeted the multitudes who came across the big pond to get a bite out of it; but only because she’s made of copper doesn’t make her a coined phrase.

Corwin was not going for the definitive—the single, representative tongue with which to tie up an argument only to contradict it. Symbolic of the promises and failures of the Versailles treaty, the imported salutation is part of a pattern designed for a sonic romancing of immigration central, where nations become nabes and the world’s people are “living side by side so effortlessly, no one calls it peace”—a cosmopolitan locale to which nothing could be more foreign than the homogenous or the homo-logos.

As LeRoy Bannerman describes it, Corwin’s voice collage
advocated world unity, exemplified in the polyglot harmony of New York’s people. It possessed threads taut with the strain of war and the urgency of an all-out effort, symptoms of concern that greatly colored Corwin’s work with tints of patriotism.

The colors in Corwin’s fabric—that crowd-pleasing fabrication of Gotham (what do you call it? Gothamer)—are red, white and blue all right; but when Corwin waves the flag, he does not make difference stand out like a blot on Old Glory. Corwin’s aural tapestry is rich in the variations that the theme demands, distinguished by the “speakers of the foreign and the ancient tongues,” the “conjoined creeds—the Jew, the Christian, the Mohammedan.”

The speech is American, which is to say that it is not exclusively, let alone officially, English or any variation thereof. “Do not mistrust [folks] because of their accent,” the narrator cautions those who stand their ground by calling it common, “for we ourselves might be incomprehensible in Oxford.” The Queen’s English ain’t the English of Queens, New York.

“The people of the city are the main design,” the narrator insists. Seemingly random utterances by speakers nameless to the audience constitute the “individual threads” of an intricately woven fabric whose pattern, unlike the grid formed by the city’s streets, cannot be visually apprehended. “How can you tell, from Seat No. 5 on the plane from Pittsburgh, what goes on here?” Nor can it be comprehended by the unaided ear—at least not by anyone well out of earshot. As I put it in Etherized Victorians, the way to arrive at the design is microphonic, not macroscopic.

The narrator invites “Americans on this wave length” to follow the threads of “interwoven hopes” by “listening acutely” to the peoples of New York City, be they from “German Yorkville” or the “outlying Latin quarters.” Their voices are brought into a meaningful relation through the aid of the radio, of which the main speaker as receiver, amplifier and transmitter is an abstraction.

At the moment—and being in it—it is easy to lose sight of the wireless, even as I walk past Radio City. I feel no need for a hearing aid or a translator. I am a part of a grand, Whitmanesque design, which is both spoken and understood.

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

Filling in the Blanks

I’ve had quite a few “silent nights” here at broadcastellan lately (to use an old broadcasting term); and yet, I have been preparing all along for the weeks and months to come, those dark and cheerless days of mid-winter when keeping up with the out-of-date can be a real comfort. Not that the conditions here in our cottage have been altogether favorable to such pursuits, given that we had to deal with a number of blackouts and five days without heating oil, during which the “room temperature” (a phrase stricken from my active vocabulary henceforth) dropped below 40F. Not even a swig of brandy to warm me. I have given up swigging for whatever duration I deem fit after imbibing rather too copiously during the New Year’s Eve celebrations down in Bristol.

Those are not the blanks (let alone the ones in my short-term memory) that I intend to fill here. The gaps in question are in my iTunes library, which currently contains some 17500 files ranging from the recent BBC adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm to World War I recordings. The vast majority of these files are American radio programs. They are readily gathered these days; but the work involved in cataloguing them for ready retrieval can be problematic and time consuming. For now, I am not lacking time; at least not until our long planned and much delayed move into town, real estate crisis be damned. Anyway . . .

For the past few weeks, I have been filling in each of the fields as shown above, verifying dates, checking the names of performers, comparing the sound quality of duplicate files, and researching the source materials for adaptations. It took a while to arrive at a convenient system. When I started the project anew (after the crash of an earlier Mac), I made the mistake of entering the date after the title of the broadcast (entries in lower case denoting descriptive ones). As a result, I could not readily listen to a serial in the order in which its chapters were presented. I would have been at a loss to follow and follow up today’s installment of Chandu the Magician (1949), as if having missing out on the chance of getting my hands on Chandu’s “Assyrian money-changer” by sending in a White King toilet soap box top sixty years ago were not difficult enough to bear.

The effort should pay off, though, as it allows me to select more carefully the programs worth my time. On this day, 21 January, the highlights, to me, are the second part of “Freedom Road” (1945), a dramatization of Howard Fast’s historical novel about the post-Civil War era (currently in my online library); Norman Corwin’s examination of life in post-World War II Britain on the previously discussed One World Flight (1947), a documentary featuring an introduction by Fiorello La Guardia and a brief commentary by author-playwright-broadcaster J. B. Priestley pop-psychologizing the causes of human conflict; and the aforementioned debut of The Fat Man (1946). Not that I’d turn a deaf ear to Ingrid Bergman in Anna Christie as produced by the Ford Theater (1949) or to the Campbell Playhouse presentation of A. J. Cronin’s Citadel (1940). And then there is another address by Father Coughlin (1940), about whose Shrine a fellow web-journalist sporting Canary Feathers in his cap had much to say recently in his personal reminiscence.

Listing, though, is to me almost always less satisfying than listening; it is also far less difficult and engaging. Listening often results in research, in comparing adaptation to source, in reading up on the performers, or in finding contemporary reviews. About the 21 January 1946 premiere of I Deal in Crime, for instance, broadcast critic Jack Gould complained that it “creeps along at a snail’s pace” and that Ted Hediger’s monologue-crowded narrative style was “not helped” by William Gargan’s “rather lackadaisical” delivery. While he did not have instant access to thousands of such programs, Gould nevertheless noted the sameness of such nominal thrillers and their “stock situations.” To him, Paul Whiteman’s Forever Tops was the “real lift” of the evening’s new offerings on ABC, a reference that compels me to find a recording of that broadcast . . . .

In this way I spend many an hour before once again sending another missive into the niche of space I, as keeper of past broadcasts, have grandiloquently styled broadcastellan.

" . . . from numberless and nameless agonies": The Bill of Rights Remembered

I might as well end this year’s regular programming here at broadcastellan with a bang. This one was sure made an impact, heard by as many as sixty million Americans—at once. Subtitled “A Dramatic Celebration of the American Bill of Rights, Including an Address by Franklin D. Roosevelt,” We Hold These Truths made radio history on this day, 15 December, in 1942. It also made the most of history in the making.

“No other single dramatic performance [. . . ] ever enjoyed so large an audience,” author Norman Corwin remarked in his notes on the published script. The program was “[w]ritten at the invitation of the US Office of Facts and Figures” to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the United States Bill of Rights, which came into effect on 15 December 1791,; but it was already in the works when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place.

“In fact,” Corwin later recalled (in Years of the Electric Ear), “I was on a train travelling from New York to Hollywood, still working on the script when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place.” Now that the United States had entered the war, the broadcast became a rallying cry, a reminder of the rights it is the duty of all those who possess them to protect.

“To many listening Americans,” Movie-Radio Guide summed up in its 3-9 January 1942 issue,

the big “Bill of Rights” program broadcast over the Nation’s networks Monday, Dec. 15, was an utterly unforgettable event. To the many personalities who joined their talents to produce the program it was likewise a memorable privilege. Coming as it did at a time when it could not have meant mere to the nation, the broadcast brought America figuratively to its feet. A transcription of the superb dramatic production [. . .] will be preserved in the archives at Washington.

The cast, as shown above, included Orson Welles, Rudy Vallee, Edward G. Robinson, Bob Burns, Jimmy Stewart, Walter Brennan, Edward Arnold, as well as (seated) Lionel Barrymore, Marjorie Main, and Walter Huston.

According to the Movie-Radio Guide, “[o]ne of the highlights of the presentation was the performance of Jimmy Stewart.” So moved was he by the reading that, at the close of the broadcast, he “pulled off his earphones” and “let down his emotions, excusing himself from the studio and reportedly breaking into tears in private.” No wonder, Stewart was called upon to introduce President Roosevelt, who addressed the public from Washington, DC. Upon this experience, the humble actor remarked: “Imagine a corporal introducing a Commander in Chief of the armed forces!”

Let’s Pretend . . . We’ve All Grown Up

Just how up have we grown since, say, the 1950s? You know, those innocent days of atomic terror, Cold War fears and anti-Communist witch-hunting. We who presume to have grown up tend to make small of what lies behind us, whether we ridicule or romanticize it. We not only know, we know better. We believe ourselves so much more educated, sophisticated or complicated than folks back in the day, whatever that day might be. It rarely occurs to us that we may have lost something other than simplicity, that we have forgotten much that was worth remembering. All those fables and fairy tales, for instance, those legends and myths that once were known to children and adults alike, the archetypal yarns that bound us, tied us to distant yet related cultures, to past generations, and to antiquity by reminding us that we are one with the earth and the universe. We have not so much grown up, it seems to me, as we are growing apart.

Imagine a children’s program these days dramatizing the by now little known story of “Ceres and Prosperina,” which was heard on this day, 28 November, in 1953 by anyone tuning in to the popular and long-running radio series Let’s Pretend. Obviously, this was well before those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles graced the plastic lunch boxes of a myth-starved generation.

Let’s Pretend rarely resorted to such faux myths and ersatz folk tales; instead, it kept many of the traditional ones alive, from “Bluebeard” to “Hiawatha,” from “Jason and the Golden Fleece” to “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Under what Norman Corwin in his Foreword to cast member Arthur Anderson’s chronicle of the program called the “benign dictatorship” of Nila Mack, Let’s Pretend “enjoyed a run of 24 years, during which it scooped up almost half a hundred national awards, and also during which the adapter-director-producer smoked two and a half packs of cigarettes daily.”

For the “Ceres and Proserpina” episode, the producers of the series (Ms. Mack, pictured above, had died earlier that year of a heart attack) did not feel obliged to explain just who these characters were, other than pointing out that this Roman myth was a perfect story for Thanksgiving, which had been celebrated two days prior to the Saturday broadcast. As the host of the series, Uncle Bill Adams, put it:

Thanksgiving is America’s own holiday; but ever since the beginning of time people have been celebrating the harvest season one way or another. The Greeks and Romans, two thousand years ago, had a wonderful harvest story. And today we’re doing it for the first time on Let’s Pretend.

All that needed to be clarified to make “Ceres and Proserpina” (as streamlined and sanitized for radio by Johanna Johnston) come alive to the target audience of tots was the meaning of the word “pomegranate.” As Sybil Trent defined it, “it’s round and red, and a little bigger than an apple, Pretenders, but the inside is full of red seeds like big currants, full of juice and very delicious.”

I suspect that, these days, the producers of a kids’ program would have to spend more time explaining or justifying their choice of presenting a myth like “Ceres and Proserpina” than they would the shape or taste of the fruit that plays such a pivotal role in it. Thanksgiving aside, the story was readily made relevant to its listeners, who were reminded of the people who, even eight years after the end of the Second World War, were living in abject poverty overseas. As announcer Jim Campbell explained:

Yes, Pretenders, now that the Thanksgiving season is almost over and everybody is beginning to think about Christmas, here’s a reminder for you to pass on to your families. Many children, and grown-ups, too, in lands that were devastated by the war, face a very miserable Christmas indeed, unless some good Americans play Santa Claus for them.

This year, a “miserable” or, at any rate, less splendid holiday season is being forecast for many families, including “some good Americans”; but no one seems to advocate Ovid’s Metamorphoses as an alternative to the computerized fantasy games that are less likely this season to fly off the shelves of the electronic stores not yet closed down for good. Along with cost-effective radio dramatics, mythology is the kind of nutritious snack that has long disappeared from the menu of children’s entertainment. The change of seasons, fancifully explained by “Ceres and Proserpine,” is now defined by commerce, by what is and what is not on display in the shop windows. It is the modern myth of perpetual growth and prosperity that may well prove the less relevant and enduring one. By all means, have that pomegranate, but brace yourself for a prolonged visit with Pluto.

Day for Bonfire Night; or, On a Bum Note of Triumph

However disheartening California’s majority rule in favor of amending the state constitution so as to protect an institution for which millions of divorced Americans have shown little respect, 5 November 2008 is still a day to inspire confidence in a democracy’s ability to refine and redefine itself, to let go of old prejudices so often upheld as time-honored traditions. To update and appropriate “On a Note of Triumph,” Norman Corwin’s cautiously optimistic radio play in commemoration of VE Day: “Seems like free men [and women] have done it again!” Perhaps, it seems even more of a victory to those living in Europe and elsewhere around the world.

Like many non-Americans anxious for change in Washington, I stayed up all night to keep track of the election results. Watching the BBC coverage, I was struck by the enthusiastic response to the outcome, even though it should come as no surprise that most people around the world are relieved to see the Republican rule of proud indifference come to an end. I was tickled by David Dimbleby’s hilariously awkward interview with the cantankerous Gore Vidal, who refused to explain his enthusiasm about the Obama victory to an audience he assumed to be ignorant of America’s civil rights movement and the Republican mindset that impeded it. Perhaps, the world does not understand what it means to be an American; but now, for the first time since 11 September 2001, the world is once again eager to learn and willing to empathize.

Here in Britain, 5 November marks the anniversary known as Guy Fawkes Day, or Bonfire Night, when the threats of extremism and self-righteousness go up in smoke. Generally, it is the figure of Gunpowder Plotter Guido Fawkes that is burned in effigy. Tonight, though it may well be the Republican legacy that the British are eager to consign to the flames. Change, after all, is only a dirty word to those incapable of coming clean about a past that is far from spotless. And, given the state of our global economy and, more importantly, our globe, mend our ways we must.

Today, 5 November, also marks a personal anniversary. It was on this day, four years ago, that, after nearly fifteen years of living, working and studying in the US, I left Manhattan to impose myself on the Welsh and the British at large. I intended the departure date to coincide with the previous election, thinking that the result might either be so decisively against my kind as to eclipse any misgivings about moving and—allowing me to wash my hands of a country whose people were reckless enough to re-elect George W. Bush—or so encouraging and propitious as to send me off into uncharted territory with a sense of hope and a feeling of elation.

It turned out to be the former, of course; but that did not keep me from visiting to Manhattan and from feeling very much at home there. You may not read the anxiety into the above picture, one of the first photographs taken of me after my move to Wales, a Principality theretofore unknown to me. Before moving, I had shed nearly twenty percent of my body weight, as if resolved to let go of my past or determined to leave behind what could not be retrieved, as if I were trying to convince myself that I needed to regain weight on British soil in order to make it British. If you look at the image of me posted in the previous entry into this journal, you will notice that I did regain the weight, largely owing to Welsh meat and home cooking.

I owe it to my partner, with whom I am yet barred from forming a legally recognized union amounting to matrimony, that I am feeling at home in our remote cottage halfway up in the Welsh hills, a place that, the wilds of the rain forest or the Congo notwithstanding, could hardly be more different from life in Manhattan. How wonderful it is to be celebrating this historic moment of harmony as a very intimate part of my own journey . . .

A Mind for Biography: Norman Corwin, “Ann Rutledge,” and Joan Fontaine

Yesterday, Joan Fontaine celebrated her 91st birthday. Now, I have no idea how the Academy Award winner marked the occasion; but I’ve got a Suspicion that, on the twenty-seventh return of the day, Ms. Fontaine was perusing a script. Not such a startling surmise, I suppose, given that the star was particularly busy back in 1944, what with the release of Frenchman’s Creek (directed by the aforementioned Mitchell Leisen and last remarked upon in connection to my trip to Cornwall) and the work on her upcoming picture The Affairs of Susan (1945). The script that would have been foremost on her mind, though, was not a scenario. It was what used to be called a radario: a dramatic script for radio. Not just any old script, mind you, but one written by the best in the business—the indefatigable Norman Corwin (now 98).

On this day, 23 October, in 1944, Joan Fontaine was heard on the Cavalcade of America program in Corwin’s “Ann Rutledge,” a gentle love story that historians tend to dismiss in a footnote. There is some doubt whether Ann Rutledge was indeed “The Girl Lincoln Loved,” which is the alternative title of Corwin’s biographical play. In his notes on the published script, the playwright remarked that, when commissioned to dramatize the romance between Rutledge and the man who would be President, he

decided to make it as simple as the story of the girl herself. [His] decision was influenced by the fact that not enough is known about Ann to get a writer into complications anyway.

What is known is that she was the daughter of a tavern-keeper in New Salem, that she had several brothers and sisters, and that she was in love with one John McNeil before she took notice of Abe Lincoln.

Unable to rely on Carl Sandburg, who does not furnish his readers with further insights, Corwin needed to approach history with the open mind of the poet. He rejected the adaptation of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, since it insisted that Rutledge never loved anyone but McNeil. Acknowledging this lack of ocular proof and inspired by the gaps it leaves for us to fill with meaning, Corwin’s biography of Ann Rutledge does not so much reconstruct the young woman’s story as it conjures continuations and alternate endings in the listener’s mind. The scripted and the spoken are merely the skeleton key that gives us access to a maze of passageways.

According to Corwin, the cast of the original production, which gathered exactly four years earlier, on 23 October 1940, was very much moved during the reading of the script, so much so that the great radio wit wondered whether we “was a tragedian and didn’t know it.” Death is not tragic, of course, unless one ponders the opportunities that are lost along with the life. What might have become of Rutledge with Lincoln at her side? What might have become of Lincoln with Rutledge at his? And how might Lincoln’s character have been influenced by this loving companionship? It is a play that invites speculations about First Ladies, lasting impressions . . . and Joan Fontaine.

“Ann is no easy role,” Corwin commented, giving much credit to Jeanette Nolan for reviving her during the first production. Joan Fontaine certainly achieves nothing less. Hers is a spirited performance, rather than the once-over lightly attitude with which many a star deigned to lower herself to the microphone. So, if I were a biographer with nothing else but “Ann Rutledge” to go on, I would guess that Joan Fontaine spent her twenty-seventh birthday with a woman in mind who did not live to see twenty-three.

The Earl Next Door

Montague, our Jack Russell terrier, had a visitor this morning. A sheepdog from the neighboring farm took time off from her daily chores and made her way up the lane to our cottage. A mere quarter of a mile—but what a giant leap into the lap of relative luxury. I wonder about the old lass. You can tell by her coat that she isn’t a pet; she’s strictly the below-stairs kind of gal. And that would be the front steps. No lounging around in the conservatory at all hours of the day, no ball games in the garden, no treats from the table, no trips to the beach. If she weren’t dead tired from doing her work, she might be daydreaming about how the other half lives. Perhaps, that is what did in the last dog who held the job. The poor thing was run over by the tractor under whose wheels it rested. Shades of Thomas Hardy.

I was reminded, too, of Norman Corwin’s “association” with Nick, an English setter who “lived down the hill,” but, having had a “falling out with his owners,” insisted on being taken care of and paid attention to elsewhere. That same “Grand Hotel of fleas” achieved the next best thing to immortality in Corwin’s radio play “The Odyssey of Runyon Jones.” Our neighbor’s sheepdog, on the other paw, was rather less demanding. After an hour’s visit, she went dutifully back down the hill. Now it is Montague’s turn to dream about that life beyond the fence. . . .

Entire industries are devoted to reminding us that the grass is greener elsewhere, to sowing the seeds of discontent and to suggesting we’d settle for a pair of binoculars and a box of weed killer to improve our lot. In this racket of showing us the other half and telling us that, with some slight and low-priced adjustments, our own ain’t half bad, the quarter-hours known as soap operas take the booby prize. Some fifty, sixty years ago—but at just about the time of day that Montague was entertaining his not-a-lady friend—a string of tangled yarns like Our Gal Sunday would roll into America’s kitchens and living rooms, or wherever radio sets were positioned and tuned in for that chance at a ready-made getaway.

“Sunday,” as James Thurber put it, “started life as a foundling dumped in the laps of two old Western miners” but managed to move on up to become the “proud and daggered wife” of “England’s wealthiest and handsomest young nobleman.” Was it safe on the other side? Was it wise to make that leap? According to Thurber, that was a question asked by most of the so-called washboard weepers:

Can a good, clean Iowa girl find happiness as the wife of New York’s most famous matinee idol? Can a beautiful young stepmother, can a widow with two children, can a restless woman married to a preoccupied doctor, can a mountain girl in love with a millionaire, can a woman married to a hopeless cripple, can a girl who married an amnesia case—can they find soap-opera happiness and the good, soap-opera way of life?

The answer, of course, was a resounding “no.” The denizens of “Soapland” remained “up to their ears in inner struggle, soul searching, and everlasting frustration.”

Sure, we’ve all got those. I’m never sure, though, just what the other half might be for me. It’s not that I know my place; I just came to know a lot of places. What is the use of an elusive realm of otherness to a squarely queer working-class boy with a PhD, a cottage in the country, and a suitcase that is always half full (or half empty)? I am either here or there, and the elsewhere is neither here nor there to me. I guess I’m just not prone to nostalgia.

Meanwhile, on this partly cloudy afternoon, my better half and I are off to spend a night at Powis Castle. We won’t flop in the recently restored state bedroom, mind you, but in the timbered cottage to the right of the Welsh fortress once known as “Y Castell Coch” (“The Red Castle”). Further to the right is where the present Earl of Powis resides. So, I am spending the night between the riches amassed by the aforementioned Clive of India and the home of a demoted nobleman. Our Gal Sunday and her kind can take a half-day . . .