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

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

The Radio Guild players in 1930

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

When aiming at respectability, US radio of the 1930s and 1940s not infrequently availed itself of British drama. Soap operas were for the kitchen—but Shakespeare and Pinero were for the parlor. As I put it in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral study on so-called old-time radio, Sir Benjamin Backbite’s remark about Mrs. Evergreen is an apt comment on US radio drama, a novel form of production that often exhausted itself in re-productions.”

“[W]hen she has finished her face,” Sir Benjamin quips, the unseen Mrs. Evergreen “joins it on so badly to her neck, that she looks like a mended statue, in which the connoisseur may see at once that the head’s modern, though the trunk’s antique.” Now, radio drama truly was a “mended statue,” a patched-up art form that rarely resembled the genuine article it tried to copy.

In radio, the trunk (the smart console) was modern, but the head, the boardroom of executives in charge of programming, was decidedly “antique,” that is, backward-looking rather than avant-garde when it came to defining wholesome or commercially viable entertainment. To be sure, in the case of Pre-Victorian plays like Sheridan’s Scandal, mending the statue might have required some whitewash to tone down its display of adultery and cover up its hints of abortion.

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

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