Notes on a “Note”: Milton Allen Kaplan’s Radio and Poetry

“If radio literature is worth study and analysis, it must be filed, classified, and catalogued accurately. The variety of programs would necessitate an intricate library system in order to permit a student to find such categories as poetry, music, historical drama, documentaries, readings, adaptations, and discussions.” Thus remarked Milton Allen Kaplan in his 1949 study Radio and Poetry, one of the most recent additions to my library of books on American broadcasting. To this day, such catalogues remain inaccurate and incomplete, at best, even at the Library of Congress or the broadcasting museums in New York and Chicago. Radio verse plays, in particular, are an immaterial thing—a nothing—of the past; they are almost entirely forgotten or ignored, especially in the teaching of literature and drama. Literary critics seem to assume that, since radio was chiefly an advertising tool, the spoken yet scripted words that aired had only the most tentative connection to the arts. The study of what presumably were mornings with Stella Dallas, afternoons with The Lone Ranger and evenings with Jack Benny should be left to cultural historians whose trade it is to dig into the trash heap of Western civilization.

When Radio and Poetry was published, network radio was pretty much dead as a medium for verse. Even the most distinguished practitioners, Norman Corwin and Archibald MacLeish, found the networks less than accommodating. Corwin, of course, had come under suspicion by the House un-American Activities Committee and, in 1949, left CBS to write and produce plays for UN Radio instead. Only a few short years earlier, his works had been heard by tens of millions and were deemed vital to the war effort.

As Kaplan points out, Corwin was “the first poet brought up with radio,” as opposed to being among the “notable poets who turned to radio.” While not recruited, he was often importuned to write occasional verse, to speak to and for the nation, to erect aural monuments in commemoration of the momentous. On this day, 13 May, in 1945, Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph” was once again produced; the aforementioned play had originally been heard on V-E Day (8 May), which it was expected to celebrate. “Coming as it did at a climactic moment in our history,” Kaplan remarks, the play “won nationwide attention, and was rebroadcast, published, and transcribed.”

Corwin did not altogether embrace his role as a national chorus in the theater of war; and the “Note” he struck was hardly a positive one. Instead, it is cautiously optimistic, daring to consider the future rather than seeing victory as a happy ending to a drama staged with a cast of millions. The “Note” was also one of Corwin’s last major plays; the “triumph” of peace gave way to the whispers of anti-Communist hysteria and further war cries in Korea, the conflict that would not trigger any poetic responses on US radio. “So they’ve given up,” the play opens. “. . . on radio,” Corwin might as well have added after V-J Day.

Norman Corwin, who recently turned 98 (and whose 97th I commemorated here), is hardly unheard of today. His V-E Day broadcast was subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin (2005). Still, his name is not frequently uttered among those whom Kaplan sought to engage, the literary scholar and educators whom he encouraged to consider radio plays as aural art. Indeed, Kaplan’s study, long out of print, is just about as triumphant as the medium upon whose life it depended. Radio verse being a dying art back then, Radio and Poetry was doomed to be buried alongside it. The author’s enthusiasm seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

“Today,” he concluded in a passage sounding very yesterday,

we have many aspects of poetry on the air—the advertising jingle, the popular song, the cadenced prose of the announcer, the verse play, the radio opera. Tomorrow, as our audiences comes to demand more and more of the medium and as that medium changes, what new aspects will be revealed, what new alliances effected, what new forms developed?

Heard any new “radio opera” or “verse play” lately? Apparently, those jingles and popular songs are the notes triumphant . . .

Magnetic Realism: Norman Corwin’s One World Flight

Well, it kept Bing Crosby on the air; but it also made that air feel a lot staler. Magnetic tape. Its introduction back in 1946 was a recorded death sentence to the miracle and the madness of live radio. Dreaded by producers of minutely timed dramas and comedy programs, going live had been the life or radio. Intimate and immediate, each half-hour behind the microphone had the urgency of a once-in-a-lifetime event. Actors and musicians gathered for a special moment and remained in the presence of the listener for the express purpose of being there for them and with them, however far away. They made time for an audience that, in turn, was making time for them. In a world of commerce in which democratic principles were reduced to the ready access to cheap reproductions, the quality of being inimitable and original was fast becoming a rare commodity indeed. The time for the magic of the time-bound art, the theater of the fourth dimension, was fast running out.

And yet, in the right hands, this new technology also meant innovation. It held the promise of unprecedented access to an unscripted and unrehearsed reality, the kind that live broadcasting scarcely approximated but often faked. One such groundbreaking program was Norman Corwin’s fourteen-part documentary One World Flight, which premiered on this day, 14 January, in 1947.

As I discuss it at length in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral study on so-called old-time radio, Corwin had played with the idea of taking listeners around the world in flights of fancy like “Daybreak”; he had created the illusion of on-the-spot reportage in dramatic series like Passport for Adams. Journalistically speaking, One World Flight was the real thing. As a recipient of the first annual One World Award commemorating Wendell Willkie’s diplomatic tour in 1942, Corwin spent four months circling the globe, gathering one hundred hours of interviews, indigenous sounds, and ethnic music. “Here is real documentary radio,” playwright Jerome Lawrence declared in his introduction to a published transcript of the first program; “[r]adio from a shiny chrome studio at Sunset and Vine or at 485 Madison [was] kindergarten stuff in comparison.”

One World Flight presented a post-war world in turmoil, at once a strange new world of opportunity and a breeding ground for hatred and conflict. Corwin’s editorial scissors did not snip away what his tape had managed to capture, even though the voices of hope were given a prominent spot. The future prime minister of India is heard calmly expressing the belief that “freedom for one world” lies in the acceptance of the fact that people and nations “are not alike,” that “everybody is not the same,” and that otherness does not imply inferiority.

One World Flight provides aural proof in support of this sentiment, “moments out of interviews with people high and low; optimists, pessimists; liberals, fascists, communists; stevedores, prime ministers.” According to Corwin who also narrated, the “profoundest things” were not always said by “presidents and premiers,” but by “ordinary” and “humble people.”

Among the “actually recorded” speakers are an Italian woman despairing over the loss of her family during the bombardment of her village; a Filipino girl dismayed that Truman did not drop the atomic bomb on Russia; a Russian newspaper editor who warns that fascist conflagrations begin with a spark; and an Australian accountant cautioning against the advancement of the “colored races,” a “Frankenstein monster” that would “turn on” and “devour us, like the Japanese.” Replacing his idealized—and idealizing—microphone with a magnetic wire recorder, Corwin picked up ideological dissonance where he had hoped for “testaments of agreement.”

To Lawrence, these recordings, though not always “Magnavox-clear,” were of an “authenticity” that was “startlingly refreshing to a fiction-tired radio listener.” He defied his readers to “sit down at a typewriter and compose such simple, straightforward literary dynamite” as was set off on One World Flight.

“Without the tape recorder one wonders if radio would be the exciting instrument it is today,” remarked one radio critic, citing as exemplary The People Act (1952), a short-lived series of community documentaries that relied entirely on taped interviews and speeches. Such uses of magnetic tape remained the exception, however; the increasing reliance on recorded material resulted instead in the prefabrication of formerly live programming and the institution of summer reruns, a new efficiency in network broadcasting that spelled artistic impoverishment rather than renewal.

". . . between the zodiac and Orson Welles": A Play Scheduled for Pearl Harbor

Well, it wasn’t exactly business as usual on this day, 7 December, back in 1941. Mind you, lucre-minded broadcasters tried hard to keep the well-oiled machinery of commercial radio running. There were soap operas and there was popular music, interrupted in a fashion rehearsed by “The War of the Worlds,” by updates about the developments of the attack on Pearl Harbor (previously commemorated here). Unlike on the day now known as 9/11, when advertising came to an immediate standstill to make way for propaganda and regular (that is, commercial) programming ceased for hours and days to come, radio back then was slow to adapt. There was no precedent; and, having ignored the signs of the time, not much preparation.

Minding the business of its sponsors, broadcasters had no master plan for a response to the masterminds behind the plans for the master race and its allies. It was, however briefly, overmastered; or flummoxed, at least. For an industry relying on minute timing, the attack and subsequent declaration of war were most inopportune. Big business was, for the most part, not behind a war that would translate into major financial losses.

Until that day, broadcasters had counted on being inconsequential; it was the commerce stimulated by the sales talk punctuating the chatter and musical interludes proffered “in the public interest,” that mattered.

The Screen Guild was fortunate. After previous crowd pleasers like “Penny Serenade” and “If You Could Only Cook,” the Gulf Motor Oil sponsored Hollywood-rehash factory had scheduled a play that just fit the bill. For that fateful night it had prepared a live production of Norman Corwin’s “Between Americans,” previously staged in June 1941. “By one of those mystic and infallible arrangements between the zodiac and Orson Welles,” the playwright would recall, this broadcast was the

first uninterrupted half-hour on the CBS network after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. All afternoon the news had come pounding in—comment, short-wave pickups, rumors, analyses, flashes, bulletins. Programs of all kinds were either brushed aside or so riddled by special announcements that they made no sense. But by 7:30 PM EST all available news on the situation was exhausted, and the Screen Guild, which had long ago scheduled “Between Americans” and Welles for this date, was given clear air.

According to Corwin, the greatest living American radio dramatist, indeed the greatest radio playwright of any time anywhere (whose 97th birthday I celebrated here), the “staggering news of the previous hours made the show far more exciting than it had any right to be.” The studio audience reacted enthusiastically, a response the playwright attributed to the moment, rather than to anything of moment in his play.

A war only four hours old is an emotion, an intoxication, a bewilderment [. . .]. People felt reassured by it. They heard the piece as a statement of faith. They were moved; they laughed extra loud; they applauded like mad when the show was over. I am certain it was Pearl Harbor that made the show so electric that night, and not so much the work of Welles, Corwin, or Harry Ackerman, who directed it.

“Between Americans” had not been prepared for the day; indeed, it had been produced five months earlier, with actor Ray Collins (whose voice Welles regarded as the best in the business) as narrator. According to Corwin, who is none too fond of the play, there were some 22,000 requests for scripts and rebroadcasts. No wonder, with lines like these:

You ever asked yourself what America means to you? Does it mean 1776? “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean”? Big business? The Bill of Rights? Uncle Sam? Chances are it means none of these things. Chances are it means something very personal to each of you. Something close to your heart, which you’d miss like the very blazes if you were stranded abroad. It might have nothing to do with quotes from Madison or Acts of Congress. It might be just the feeling of crisp autumns in New England and the smell of burning leaves. It might be the memory of the way they smooth off the infield between the games of a double-header. It might be a thing as small as your little finger [that is, a cigarette].

“Big business” and personal memories. They merge at the moment of listening. Big business counted on that.

The 7 December 1941 program is a fascinating record of an industry coming to terms with the role it was called upon to play. The commercial structure remained remarkably intact; but the play was being shrewdly exploited as “one of the most timely programs ever heard on the Gulf Screen Guild Theater:

Broadcast at any time, we believe this program would make every American’s heart beat a little faster, make him hold his head just a little higher. But since the tragic and foreboding news that came today, this program, “Between Americans,” now becomes an American Odyssey. In just a moment, our story will begin.

“But first,” listeners had to hear the words from the sponsor, who had this topical message prepared for the occasion:

Right. And here is an easy way to change from a pessimist into an optimist. If you are wondering now how long you may have to keep your present car, and wondering too if it will last, if it will stay in good condition, just look on the bright side of the picture. Remember, when you give the wearing parts of your car good protection that helps it stay young and act young a long, long time. So, give your automobile the modern method of lubrication . . .

Yes, radio was a well-oiled machine . . . until the rationing of its parts set in.

No Headstone, No Regrets

How do you survive the ordeal of executing the killing of some 140,000 people and counting. Perhaps, by counting on facts and figures to counter or discount any accounts of fatality and disfigurement; by recounting to myself, for decades to come, that I could not be held accountable, having merely carried out orders as someone to be counted on; or by counting the praises bestowed upon me by those of my countrymen I would be pleased to encounter, for having been instrumental in ending a war that, without my precise handling of the instruments, might have ended the lives of countless more.

Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr., the commander of the Enola Gay, whose idea of a loving tribute was to name after his mother the B-29 out of whose womb “Little Boy” dropped onto the roofs of Hiroshima, insisted that he had “no regrets” about the outcome of his mission, that he slept “clearly every night.” Clearly, he won’t be counting sheep, or charred bodies, tonight. Mr. Tibbets, the world took note, died today at the age of 92.

When I came across that announcement, I was reminded of “14 August,” a radio play by poet-journalist Norman Corwin (previously discussed here to mark the 60th anniversary of VJ Day). With it, Corwin sought to assure Americans that “God and uranium” had been on their “side,” that the “wrath of the atom fell like a commandment,” and that it was “worth a cheer” that the “Jap who never lost a war has lost a world; learning, at some cost, that crime does not pay.”

Broadcast on VJ-Day, “14 August” asked listeners to remember those Americans “dead as clay” after defending “the rights of men,” after “fighting for “people the likes of you.” No mention was made of the Japanese whose lives were turned to ash in the streets of Hiroshima; no words uttered to suggest that achieving peace at such “cost” might, too, be considered a “crime” for which someone other than the dead might have to pay.

I am reminded, too, of the aforementioned radio writer-historian Erik Barnouw, who, upon learning that the US government had “seized and impounded” reels of film shot in Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) by Japanese cameramen (headed by Akira Iwasaki), the reported return of which to Japan in 1968 led Barnouw to produce the documentary Hiroshima-Nagasaki, 1945 (1970). Reviewing the long-suppressed footage, Barnouw commented (in Media Marathon [1996]):

The material we saw had been organized in sequences, which included “effects on wood,” “effects on concrete,” “effects on internal organs,” and so forth, as though scientific questions had determined the shooting. Other sequences showed grotesque destruction of buildings and bridges.

Finding only a “few sequences of people at improvised treatment shelters,” Barnouw was “troubled” by the “paucity” of what he referred to as “human effects footage.” Who could be counted on to tell the stories so often unaccounted for in the records of history?

The Allies’ fight against the Axis was a worthy cause; what is unworthy of those who lost their lives on either side is a victor’s sweeping dismissal of any consequences other than victory and the suppression or outright erasure of documents suggesting trauma rather than triumph.

VJ Day was hardly an occasion to show compassion for the defeated enemy, you might say, and that it is understandable that relief about the end of the war expressed itself in levity (as heard on the Fred Allen Show from 25 November 1945, a clip of which is featured in the above video [since then removed]). To consider it appropriate, some thirty years later, to restage the Hiroshima bombing for a Texas air show; to insist, another thirty years on, that it is a “damn big insult” to acknowledge the sufferings of those who were killed for however worthy a cause, as Mr. Tibbets has done, strikes me as a failure to rival the inhumanity that is the success of Hiroshima.

Having long refused to draw attention to the death of thousands, Mr. Tibbets decided to make his own farewell a gesture of self-erasure. He had the foresight to request that no headstone be placed on his burial site, predicting that his contempt or disregard for others might tempt those ignored by him to turn his final resting place into a stage for protest. Mr. Tibbets, it seems, was one to shun debate. Perhaps, a remarkably headstrong patriot like he deserves nothing more than our respect for his final wish: a vanishing act in keeping with a life of denial, a grave as unmarked as those of the victims unremarked upon.

“No regrets.” It is these words, and the words of those who call resolve what is a lack of compassion and an unwillingness or inability to countenance doubt, that we must mark, lest we are prepared to mark the occasion of another Hiroshima . . .

The Devil Wears Praha . . . Out

Just where did it go—or go wrong—he wonders, as he passes the could-be-anywhere shopping complex to wend his way back after a Mexican meal and a surprisingly good Long Island Iced Tea to the too embarrassingly froufrou and French-sounding to mention hotel they had booked online and chosen for its stylish if less than regionally authentic interiors? Old Praha, I mean, the Eastern European attracting Western European capital I am currently visiting and liberally dispensing.

Earlier today, the East-West clash played itself out before my eyes—however inflamed after beholding hordes of garishly clad Irish soccer fans in town to cheer on what nationalism defines for them as their team in a game against rather than “with” the Czechs—at the local toy museum, where we stopped on our way from the overcrowded Palace. On display in said cultural depository are the Barbie dolls pictured above, lifting their skeletal arms and wriggling their barren hips opposite more traditional playthings of Bohemian manufacture.

To be sure, military toys were not wanting among those mass-produced goods encouraging youngsters to consume . . . mass-produced goods, even though some history lessons might be required for those at play to determine just which garb makes friend sartorially distinguishable from foe.

Sixty years ago, the aforementioned radio playwright and journalist Norman Corwin visited this town on his One World Flight across the globe in the aftermath of the Second World War to report about conditions in Czechoslovakia.

“From Moscow to Prague is a distance of about twelve hundred miles,” Corwin commenced his audio tour. “The land beneath” him, he remarked, looked

as green and innocent as though it had never heard the names of old wars, nor the rumor of new ones. Yet not long ago, over every inch of the distance we were consuming so quickly and comfortably, armies had fought, blood had mixed in the streams and rivers, villages had been sacked, cities bombed. A dead man for every foot of the way.

Corwin expressed himself

naturally anxious to see what betrayal and occupation, and the trials of reconstruction, had done to Czechoslovakia, whether its people were happy and confident, whether they were still friendly to the United States, the country which had done so much to create their republic; how they felt about Russia; whether they were, as we’ve been told along the way, a bridge between East and West; whether they were in a mood to embrace the concept of One World.

Shortly after Corwin’s reportage, the Czechs had little opportunity to realign themselves with the west. Still, I wonder how much of these acts of “betrayal” and states of “occupation” are being remembered now that Prague has gone so thoroughly (so irrevocably?) west, if only in its out-of-the-way way of attracting foreign currencies to be flung across counters all over town by visitors from Europe and the United States. Is capitalism, which swears by competition, staying world conflicts or encouraging them in a way that sports keep the young strong and aggressive so as to make them fit to waste their bodies in international conflicts?

A new kind of megabomb has been cheered in Russia , the news hit me as I settled down after a day of seeing sights. Is this just another sign of healthy competition? Is competition ever healthy, or is it the corruption of the very body it promises to invigorate?

What might be the price and point of removing oneself from the game, he wonders, recalling his inclination to dress up Barbie while other boys his age got dirty chasing and cursing each other on the soccer field, playing the same game that apparently convinced dozens of Irish fanatics in Leprechaun hats to invade this much and oft beleaguered city . . .

Alexander Technique: A Matter of Queer Posture

Well, it’s been a few decades since my first (and only) toga party. Last night, I felt as if I were crashing one. A friend of mine took me to a way-off Broadway production of a play called A Kiss from Alexander (book and lyrics by Stephan de Ghelder; music by Brad Simmons). Billed as a “musical fantasy,” it is essentially a backstage stabbing farce—say, All About Abs—wrapped in romance and sentiment. Its tone is considerably less even than the spray tan on the cast’s collective hide.

Borrowing from the Rita Hayworth vehicle Down to Earth, which it references, this gay Band Wagon rolls along merrily enough, confident in attracting an audience steeped in Hollywood myth, in Broadway lore as well as lingo. “Alexander technique,” for instance, which served as a pun in the play, is a way of learning how to rid the body of tension. Alternative culture has been be doing just that by leaning on traditions that produce anxieties, irreverence being the release.

Art not quite sure of its standing tends to be self-conscious. Witnessing the return of Alexander the Great in his mission to sabotage a bawdy, low-fidelity account of his private life (in a production called “Alexander Was Great!”), I was reminded of Norman Corwin’s radio fantasy “A Descent of the Gods.” In it, the god of Trivia recalls how Venus, Mars, and Apollo visited the earth, and how they were embraced and degraded by the media, the least respected and most prominent of which was the one Corwin employed.

By now, the god of Trivia has been knocked off his throne by the god of Camp. And while I am not a worshipper of either, it is difficult to deny the force of the latter.

The Life of Radio: Norman Corwin Turns 97

Well, I just cast my two votes in the National Election here in Wales. It is the first time I’ve been given such a voice in a country not my own, and the first I am asserting my right to raise it since leaving Germany for New York City back in 1990. It is an important election, too, considering that, beginning this month, the National Assembly for Wales is enjoying new legislative powers and can henceforth pass laws (or assembly measures) affecting everyday living in the principality. Now, I won’t divulge just where I placed that X on the ballot sheets; but—caveat: creaky transition—I am going to tell you who gets my vote for “Most Underrated and Ignored American Poet of the 20th Century.” That would be Norman Corwin, who on this 3 May 2007 celebrates his ninety-seventh birthday.

He has been called the “poet laureate” of American radio, even though that title was never officially bestowed. As writer, director, and producer, he created some of the most eloquent, witty and stirring plays ever conceived for listening. He was the life of the medium at a time when it was alive (if not always well) as an artistic forum, and is ready to reach out to those, including myself, who refuse to turn a deaf ear to it. As The Easy Ace reminds us, he had a profound influence on the lives and careers of creative minds (like the aforementioned Robert Altman) who turned on the radio and turned on to his works.

What is the life of radio? Is it the voice, the word made sound, or sound itself? Are the airwaves the domain of the bard who writes for recital or the journalist who listens and records? When asked (by Douglas Bell, in a published interview titled Years of the Electric Ear) whether he thought of himself as a “creative, imaginative writer or as a sociologist or documentarian,” Corwin declared himself to be “definitely” the former. Perhaps, he was rather too accepting of the dichotomy. After all, many of his most compelling pieces for radio are at once reportage and poetry.

It was not by choice that he assumed the role of a radio documentarian, that he achieved fame for commemorative specials like “On a Note of Triumph” and “We Hold These Truths” or acclaim for series like An American in England and One World Flight). He enjoyed being witty and whimsical, writing satires and fantasies in verse disclosing “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas” or opening the case of “The Undecided Molecule”; but, once his powers of engaging the mind became known, he was being “importuned by radio entities” to speak on behalf of the American people in moments of sorrow, cheer, and sheer confusion.

The height of Corwin’s radio career—the heyday of the medium—coincides with the period of the Second World War; indeed, radio’s influence and status during those years was largely due to that global conflict, as the airwaves connected the home front to the theaters of war, however careful the filtration. For purposes of propaganda, radio recruited a great many authors who otherwise would have had little to do with the commerce-corrupted mass medium. In Corwin, broadcasters and government officials found an artist who not only knew the medium but loved and respected it, who could exploit it (rather than its listeners) while exploring its potentialities.

Corwin never turned his back on broadcasting, even when commercial radio in the US began to abandon the production of dramatic programming, already rendered largely inconsequential during the 1950s as a result of anti-Communist hysteria. Unlike many former radio playwrights, Corwin did not consider the airwaves to be a path to ostensibly bigger and better projects in other media. And if his writings are not nearly as well known today as they once were and deserve to be now, we should fault neither the topicality nor the transient nature of his work in sound, but cite the neglect of the stage on which it had been brought into existence.

"Round and Round Hitler’s Grave"

It took a while before the news got around the world; but on this day, 30 April, in 1945, Adolf Hitler got around facing trial and execution by committing suicide in his bunker. It would take another six decades until that hideout was opened for public inspection, when, in 2004, the Führer’s final days became the subject of a German film Der Untergang (2004). The Great Dictator had often been the subject of caricatures and crude character sketches, so much easier to accomplish than a life-size portrait. So much easier to take, as well, considering that a realistic image forces us to acknowledge that, far from being super- (or sub-) human, Hitler was one of us.

Throughout the Second World War, parodies and revenge fantasies boosted the morale of the Allies, comforted by way of comic deflation or enraged through violent melodrama. Radio popularized songs like Spike Jones’s previously mentioned “Der Führer’s Face” and Pete Seeger’s “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave.” If he could not be assassinated, potshots had to do:

I’m-a going to Berlin
To Mister Hitler’s town
I’m gonna take my forty-four
And blow his playhouse down.

This is how, a few days after the Führer’s death, the Almanac Singers modified those lines of Seeger’s original song when they performed it for a live broadcast of Norman Corwin’s celebrated VE-Day tribute “On a Note of Triumph,” the highest-rated American radio play of all time:

We’re gonna tell the postman,
Next time he comes ’round,
That Mr. Hitler’s new address
Is the Berlin buryin’ ground.

The Führer was dead, all right. Some eager radio writers had already killed him off, in fantasies like the aforementioned “Death Comes for Adolf Hitler.”  And yet, did that “playhouse” of his ever shut down only because its director, its producers, sponsors, and select members of staff were found dead, along with an audience of millions or, as discussed here, tried and executed in the spectacle of Nürnberg?

Corwin cautioned the American public, asking listeners to “fix [their] eyes on the horizons” and swing [their] ears about.” The old regime did not simply expire, no matter how many rounds had been shot to silence the enemy or how loudly one went “Round and Round” the problem of facing the aftermath.

Lately, I have been watching a number of German post-war films that dealt with the recent past of the fallen Reich and were less than sanguine about the Wunder of the nation’s reinvention as a republic. That is, they dealt with the inconvenient truth that the Nazis were not all below ground. Some had gone underground. They went on to make it big during the US-financed Wirtschaftswunder (or economic boom). Both Wir Wunderkinder (1958) and Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (1959) comment on the big fascist business and bureaucracy behind Germany’s capitalist society and its corruption by Nazi big shots who, rehabilitated without remorse, managed to get high up by keeping a low political profile.

It is this sense of a hidden presence, of an unresolved, let alone conquered past, that, many decades after Germany’s surrender, made it difficult for me to face life in that country, a country where fascists old and new still dance round and round Hitler’s grave as if in hopes of a resurrection; where those in denial of the past or in support of its policies still trample on the graves of millions; and where the radical left not only opened wounds, but fire, perpetrating acts of extremist terror. I have not been back these seventeen years. We all have our baggage, you might say. Sometimes it weighs so heavily on our souls, it keeps us from dancing . . .

Pride of the Luftwaffe: Guernica at 70

“Well, gentlemen, let’s get aboard,” says the pilot in Norman Corwin’s “They Fly Through the Air.” What a “peach” of a morning. “You couldn’t ask for a better day” . . . to blow up a few hundred civilians. The verse play (discussed here previously), was written in commemoration of the air raid on the village of Gernika-Lumo, perpetrated on this day, 26 April, in 1937. In what words, in which ways can one approach such a monstrosity, reproach such a murderous marvel as modern warfare? How to make sense of it? How to keep from becoming numb, insensitive to the atrocities of war that are being committed even today, when our gardens are peaceful and the pavements busy with people consumed with their own cares or the pleasures of consuming? These are the questions poet-journalist Corwin, who will turn 97 in a few days, tackles in his response to the raid. Picasso’s Guernica, which I got to see at last on a visit to Madrid, is a lament for the dead and wounded; Corwin’s “They Fly” is an attack on the machinery of war and the minds that get it running.

“Gee, that’s fascinating,” exclaims the pilot as he looks down upon the havoc and horror he has wrought by dutifully carrying out his mission, which is merely to test the what is hot from the runways of Germany, the latest line of the Luftwaffe: “What a spread! Looks just like a budding rose, unfolding.” That precious simile is an echo of a remark attributed to Mussolini, who is said to have found floral beauty in mass destruction.

“How can we justly celebrate the odysseys / Of demigods who finger destinies upon their trigger tips?” Corwin’s narrator considers. He has a few suggestions, all of which he rejects as unworthy of the deed:

With wreaths of laurel?
Laurel withers fast.
By sculpturing in bronze?
Too cold; too passive;
Also, in emergencies, it may be melted to make other things;
Rechristen with you names a public square?
That’s vulgar.
Furthermore, no single square is big enough.

A poem, perhaps?
Aha, that’s it! A poem!
A verse or two that will contract no rust,
A bombproof ode, whose strophes will stand stout
Against all flood and famine, epidemic war,
And pox and plague and general decay.
Yes, poetry’s the thing.

Is it? The narrator tries to escape the noise of the motors (“Our meter will be influenced”), but is dissatisfied with his lines:

What words can compass glories such as we have seen today?
Our language beats against its limitations.

How do we commemorate Guernica? Perhaps by listening for and to those engines running, the war machinery that is at work today. The past is often conveniently looked at as if from above, from which vantage point it appears distant, clearly patterned, even negligible or quaint. Perhaps it is best to resist the temptations of flight . . .

What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Robert Altman (1925-2006) on the Air

Well, news is spreading fast these days; and by now anyone within reach of a computer will have learned that film director Robert Altman has died on Monday, 20 November 2006, at the age of 81. Since my own web journal can do little to propagate this message, it will provide instead an addendum to the small number of long-prepared and oft-copied obituaries currently circulating in the blogosphere. I have attempted as much on previous occasions by sharing a lesser known aspect of the careers of Don Knotts, Shelley Winters, and composer Cy Feuer, all of whom had connections to the world of radio to which broadcastellan is largely dedicated. As it turns out, Robert Altman is no exception. Indeed, his debt to the medium was far more profound than that of the other artists aforementioned.

To be sure, Altman’s name is already being closely linked to the so-called golden age of radio by virtue of what would be his last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), a filmic realization of a world evoked by radio romancer Garrison Keillor. Altman was greatly influenced by 1940s radio. He revealed as much in a National Public Radio documentary broadcast in May 1995 (a recording of which you may find here). In a tribute to Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph,” Altman made the following statement:

“Anything I know about drama today comes more from Norman Corwin than anybody. If I had to list my mentors, I would say Norman Corwin, David Lean, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, and then a countless number of people whose names I forget where I learned what not do.”

Now, what could Altman have learned “about drama” from Corwin, America’s foremost radio playwright (whose first letter to me I cheered recently)? As a film director, Altman did not fare well on the stage. His production of Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues earlier this year was widely panned; indeed, the reviews were so unfavorable that, while in London at the time, I decided to pass on it, despite my interest in the career of Miller, a former radio writer (one of whose works I discuss here). Perhaps, what Altman did take from Corwin—and what he could do on film more readily than on a stage—was the idea of an ensemble piece comprised of a large cast, a sprawling drama of many voices (such as The Player and Gosford Park). Everybody‘s in it, you think, when you look at the cast for an Altman production.

The same can be said for the signature pieces written and directed by Norman Corwin—plays with a vast number of characters, their stories intersecting, their voices adding up to something, to an idea, a statement, about Hollywood, for instance, about politics, about the state of American society. Corwin’s seminal On a Note of Triumph was such a piece, a play for voices; not a choir, mind you, but a cacophony; not a traditional drama of linear storytelling, but a fictionalized documentary, a record of a moment. Of this play, Altman said, some fifty years after its initial broadcast: “I can recite 40% of On a Note of Triumph from memory,” having listened to it “time and time again.”

I had not been aware of Altman’s admiration of Corwin’s work, until today. Come to think of it, both Corwin and Altman were belatedly honored at the Academy Awards this year, Altman receiving a lifetime achievement award, and Corwin being the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary about the making of “On a Note of Triumph.” Now, when I watch Altman’s films, I will look for Corwin and “Anything” he might have brought to the craft of the late director.