Difficult as Pie: A Priestley Postscript

I have never heard J. B. Priestley deliver his famous Postscripts, a series of morale-boosting talks broadcast to the British public during those early, uncertain and hence no doubt most terrifying days of the Second World War.  Many decades later, actor Patrick Stewart returned Priestley’s lines to the airwaves that had once carried them into the homes of millions; but somehow I could not get excited about those recreations.  For, no matter how delayed an originally live broadcast, its recording yet retains the immediacy of a first-hand experience that no re-enactment can approach.

Recently, I came across the published Postscripts(1940).  Unlike Stewart’s voiceovers, the printed speeches are unabridged and, their author insists, “exactly as they were, without a speck of retouching.”  These are “wireless talks and not essays,” Priestley cautions the reader:

If I had my way they would never have re-appeared in this form, to be examined at leisure instead of being caught on the wing every Sunday at nine-fifteen, but the requests for a volume of them have come in so thick and fast during these last three months, that I felt it would be churlish to refuse.  So here they are, and please don’t blame them now, for they have already done the work they were intended to do.

Indeed, reading those scripts aloud now, I can, even in my own indifferent, untrained voice, hear them doing their work.  Priestley indulges in none of the hysterics and hyperboles that so often render alienating what is meant to be persuasive speech.  They are sentimental, these talks, and they are sane. 

As Priestley puts it in the Preface, the

tricks of the writing trade and some fortunate accidents of voice and manner are all very well, but what really holds the attention of most decent folk is a genuine sharing of feelings and views on the part of the broadcaster.  He must talk as if he were among serious friends….

Cover of Postscripts (1940) by J. B. Priestley

Priestley’s Postscripts are simply words of encouragement, gentle reminders that much of our seemingly inconsequential everyday is worth holding on to as it defines who we are, that the loss of even the slightest thing may be keenly felt as a threat to our identity.  Take a piece of pie, for instance—and make it a fake one.

That is just what Priestley did, on this day, 29 September, in 1940, when he talked about returning home to Bradford, the “solid real place” of his childhood.  The seemingly random devastation caused by a recent air raid, though far less grand in scale than the attacks on London, “made a far deeper impression” on Priestley “because it somehow brought together two entirely different worlds; the safe and shining world of my childhood, and this insecure and lunatic world of to-day.”

The local bakery, too, had suffered during the raid; but there, in the broken, half boarded up window, could still be glimpsed at the giant pie that had fascinated Priestley when, as a child, he saw emanating from it a steady flow of “fine rich appetising steam.” A wondrous, awe-inspiring sight it was to Priestley, the boy—and a wonder it was now to Priestley, the man, that, after all those years and after all those hours of bombing, the pie was still in its place, still in one piece, and still steaming away.

Mindful of the prosaic souls who needed to have their lessons spelled out for them, and who may well have resented as this “yapping about . . . pies and nonsense” at a time of acute crisis, Priestley added the reminder to “keep burnished the bright little thread of our common humanity,” a world in which that particular pie had “its own proper place.”

If only we had heard a voice like that during the dark days after 9/11, an opportunity seized by warmongers and profiteers.  If only there had been that sane and gentle voice, the raising of which in a time of terror is as difficult as pie.

Figured Speech: De-monstrating Lord Haw-Haw

When I picked up this slim and curious volume, Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen (1939), at an antiquarian bookstore in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, I was puzzled, to say the least.  I mean, I had heard about—and had listened to recordings of—the notorious Lord Haw-Haw, the fascist broadcaster whose role it was to demoralize the British, to make them turn against their own government by convincing them that to side with the so-called Third Reich was the safest, surest way to march forward. Yet here was a book—written pseudonymously by a journalist calling himself Jonah Barrington and cartoonishly illustrated by an artist who went by the name of Fenwick—that turned propaganda into satire by lending form and features to a voice of terror that was infiltrating the home front.

Yes, it is a curious performance—a biographical act of deflating a windbag, of knocking the stuffing out of a nameless, disembodied operative whose dangerous air of mystery was just plain hot by the time Barrington had laughed off the threat by calling it “Haw-Haw.”  Those in Britain who, like Barrington, had caught the bizarre broadcasts from station Zeesen in Germany began to speculate about the speaker.  In the absence of evidence, Barrington created a character that, to him, had already “become real”; and out of the polemics that “nightly pollute[d]” the British air, the journalist set out to weave “silly fancies.”

“Let me make one point perfectly clear,” Barrington added:

Although Fenwick and I have use our imagination in building up the home life and background of Haw-Haw and his fellow propagandists, the actual speeches credited here to them are given verbatim—exactly as broadcast from the stations Hamburg, Cologne and Zeesen (D.J.A).

Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen defused a crisis by giving a ridiculous shape to uncertain things to come, by making preposterously concrete what had been potentially persuasive or at least dangerously ambiguous hearsay.  Filmmakers and journalists had parodied Nazi figures before—but the task of turning rhetoric into a figure of ridicule is a rather more complex strategy of counter-propaganda, especially since, in this case, print was rendering fictive what it had made definitive:

Haw-Haw in print needs stage directions, scene-setting and local colour.  And Fenwick needn’t think he’s going to sit back and do nothing, either.  You want the best of Haw-Haw, and we give it to you—drawings and all.

Best or worst, readers of Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen were meant to get the better of him.

“You Were Wonderful,” Lena Horne

When I heard of the passing of Lena Horne, the words “You Were Wonderful” came immediately to mind. Expressive of enthusiasm and regret, they sound fit for a tribute. However, by placing the emphasis on the first word, we may temper our applause—or the patronising cheers of others—with a note of reproach, implying that while Horne’s performances were marvellous, indeed, the system in which she was stuck and by which her career was stunted during the 1940s was decidedly less so. No simple cheer of mine, “You Were Wonderful” is also the title of a radio thriller that not only gave Horne an opportunity to bring her enchanting voice to the far from color-blind medium of radio but to voice what many disenchanted black listeners were wondering about: Why fight for a victory that, of all Americans, will benefit us least? As title, play, and cheer, “You Were Wonderful”—captures all that is discouraging in those seemingly uncomplicated words of encouragement.

Written by Robert L. Richards, “You Were Wonderful” aired over CBS on 9 November 1944 as part of the Suspense series, many of whose wartime offerings were meant to serve as something other than escapist fare. As I argued in Etherized Victorians, stories about irresponsible Americans redeeming themselves for the cause were broadcast nearly as frequently as plays designed to illustrate the insidiousness of the enemy. Despite victories on all fronts, listeners needed to be convinced that the war was far from over and that the public’s indifference and hubris could endanger the war effort, that both vigilance and dedication were required of even the most war-weary citizen. “You Were Wonderful” played such a role.

When a performer in a third-rate nightclub in Buenos Aires suddenly collapses on stage and dies, a famous American entertainer (Horne) is rather too eager replace her. “I’m a singer, not a sob sister,” she declares icily, thawing for a tantalizing rendition of “Embraceable You.”

The very name of the mysterious substitute, Lorna Dean, encourages listeners to conceive of “You Were Wonderful” in relation to the perennially popular heroine Lorna Doone, or the Victorian melodramatic heritage in general, and to consider the potential affinities between the fictional singer and her impersonatrix, Lena Horne, suggesting the story to be that of an outcast struggling to redeem herself against all odds.

One of the regulars at the nightclub is Johnny (Wally Maher), an seemingly disillusioned American who declares that his country did not do much for him that was worth getting “knocked off for.” Still, he seems patriotic enough to become suspicious of the singer’s motivations, especially after the club falls into the hands of a new manager, an Austrian who requests that his star performer deliver specific tunes at specified times. The absence of a narrator signalling perspective promotes audience detachment, a skeptical listening-in on the two central characters as they question each other while all along compromising themselves.

When questioned about her unquestioning compliance, Lorna Dean replies:

I’m an entertainer because I like it.  And because it’s the only way I can make enough money to live halfway like a human being.  With money I can do what I want to—more or less. I can live where I want to, go where I want to, be like other people—more or less.  Do you know what even that much freedom means to somebody like me, Johnny?

However restrained, such a critique of the civil rights accorded to and realized by African-Americans, uttered by a Negro star of Horne’s magnitude, was uncommonly bold for 1940s radio entertainment, especially considering that Suspense was at that time a commercially sponsored program.

“[W]e are not normally a part of radio drama, except as comedy relief,” Langston Hughes once remarked, reflecting on his own experience in 1940s broadcasting. A comment on this situation, Richards’s writing—as interpreted by Horne—raises the question whether Horne’s outspoken character could truly be the heroine of “You Were Wonderful.”

Talking in the see-if-I-care twang of a 1930s gang moll, Lorna is becoming increasingly suspect, so that the questionable defense of her apparently selfish behavior serves to render her positively un-American. When told that her command performances are shortwaved to a German submarine and contain a hidden code to ready Nazis for an attack on American ships, she claims to have known this all along.

The conclusion of the play discloses the singer’s selfishness to have been an act. Risking her life, Lorna Dean defies instructions and, deliberately switching tunes, proudly performs “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” instead.

About to be shot for her insubordination, Lorna is rescued by the patron who questioned her integrity, a man who now reveals himself to be a US undercover agent. When asked why she embarked upon this perilous one-woman mission, the singer declares: “Just to get in my licks at the master race.”

“You Were Wonderful,” which, like many wartime programs was shortwaved to the troops overseas, could thus be read as a vindication of the entertainment industry, an assurance to the GIs that their efforts had the unwavering support of all Americans, and a reminder to minorities, soldiers and civilians alike, that even a democracy marred by inequality and intolerance was preferable to Aryan rule.

Ever since the Detroit race riots of June 1943, during which police shot and killed seventeen African-Americans, it had become apparent that unconditional servitude from citizens too long disenfranchised could not be taken for granted. With “You Were Wonderful,” Horne was assigned the task of assuring her fellow Negro Americans of a freedom she herself had to wait—and struggle—decades rightfully to enjoy.

Had it not been for this assignment, Lena Horne may never have been given the chance to act in a leading role in one of radio’s most prominent cycles of plays. Yes, “You Were Wonderful,” Lena Horne—and any tribute worthy of you must also be an indictment.

Cranky Doodle Dandy: George M. Cohan Feels So Free

Jumping Jehosophat! It sure feels good to rant about our elected government—some force that, at times, appears to us (or is conveniently conceived of) as an entity we don’t have much to do with, after the fact or fiction of election, besides the imposition of carrying the burden of enduring it, albeit not without whingeing. Back on this day, 4 May, in 1941, the Columbia Broadcasting System allotted time to remind listeners of the Free Company just what it means to have such a right—the liberty to voice one’s views, the “freedom from police persecution.” The play was “Above Suspicion.” The dramatist was to be the renowned author Sherwood Anderson, who had died a few weeks before completing the script. In lieu of the finished work, The Free Company, for its tenth and final broadcast, presented its version of “Above Suspicion” as a tribute to the author.

Starred on the program, in one of his rare radio broadcasts—and perhaps his only dramatic role on the air—was the legendary George M. Cohan (whose statue in Times Square, New York City, and tomb in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, are pictured here). Cohan, who had portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt in I’d Rather Be Right was playing a character who fondly recalls Grover Cleveland’s second term, but is more to the right when it comes to big government.

The Free Company’s didactic play, set in New York City in the mid-1930s, deals with a complicated family reunion as the German-American wife of one Joe Smith (Cohan) welcomes her teenage nephew, Fritz (natch!), from the old country. Fritz’s American cousin, for one, is excited about the visit. Trudy tells as much to Mary, the young woman her mother hired to prepare for the big day:

Trudy.  Mary, I have a cousin.

MARY.  Yeah, I know, this Fritz.

TRUDY.  Have you a cousin?

MARY.  Sure, ten of ‘em.

TRUDY.  What are they like?

MARY.  All kinds.  One’s a bank cashier and one’s in jail.

TRUDY.  In jail! What did he do?

MARY.  He was a bank cashier, too [. . .].

Make that “executive” and it almost sounds contemporary. In “Above Suspicion,” the American characters are not exactly what the title suggests. That is, they aren’t perfect; yet they are not about to conceal either their past or their positions.

Trudy’s father is critical of the government, much to the perturbation of Fritz, who has been conditioned to obey the State unconditionally:

SMITH.  Jumping Jehosophat [chuckles].  Listen, the State’s got nothing to do with folks’s private affairs.  Nothing.

FRITZ. Please, Uncle Joe, with all respect.  If the State doesn’t control private affairs, how can the State become strong?

SMITH.  Oh, it will become strong, all right.  You know, sorry, it might become too darn strong, I’ll say.  And I also say, let the government mind its own dod-blasted business and I’ll mind mine.

To Fritz, such “radical” talk is “dangerous”; after all, his education is limited to “English, running in gas masks, and the history of [his] country.” He assumes that Mary is a spy and that anyone around him is at risk of persecution. To that, his uncle replies: “Dangerous? Well, I wish it was. The trouble is, nobody pays any attention. By gad, all I hope is that the people wake up before the country is stolen right out from under us, that’s what I hope.”

“Above Suspicion” is a fairly naïve celebration of civil liberties threatened by the ascent of a foreign, hostile nation (rather than by forces from within). Still, it is a worthwhile reminder of what is at stake today. Now that the technology is in place to eavesdrop on private conversations (the British government, most aggressive among the so-called free nations when it comes to spying on the electorate, is set to monitor all online exchanges), we can least afford to be complaisant about any change of government that would exploit the uses of such data to suppress the individual.

“Dictaphones,” Smith laughs off Fritz’s persecution anxieties.

I wish they would some of those dictaphones here.  I’d pay all the expenses to have the records sent right straight to the White House.  That’s what I’d do.  Then they’d know what was going on then.  [laughs]  They’d get some results then, hey, momma?

These days, no one is “Above Suspicion.” Just don’t blame it on Fritz.

A Half-Dollar and a Dream: Arthur Miller, Scrooge, and a “big pile of French copper”

The currency market has been giving me a headache. The British pound is anything but sterling these days, which, along with our impending move and the renovation project it entails, is making a visit to the old neighborhood seem more like a pipe dream to me. The old neighborhood, after all, is some three thousand miles away, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; and even though I have come to like life here in Wales, New York is often on my mind. You don’t have to be an inveterate penny-pincher to be feeling the pressure of the economic squeeze. I wonder just how many dreams are being deferred for lack of funding, dreams far greater than the wants and desires that preoccupy those who, like me, are hardly in dire straits. Back in March 1885, Joseph Pulitzer was doing his part to make such a larger-than-life dream a reality when he tried to raise funds for the erection of the Statue of Liberty. In one of his most sentimental plays for radio, Arthur Miller told the story through the eyes of a soldier and his miserly grandfather—Miller’s Scrooge.

Broadcast on 26 March 1945, “Grandpa and the Statue” is announced as a “warm, human story of the most famous pinup girl in the world.” Miller claimed that he “could not bear” to write just “another Statue of Liberty show” designed to “illustrate how friendly we are with France and how the Statue of Liberty will stand forever as a symbol of a symbol and so on.” As I put it in my dissertation, the Dickensian comedy he wrote instead “is a nostalgic response to the public’s growing World War-weariness and the prospects of international unity and concord after Yalta.”

As the play opens, a wounded American soldier, recovering in a hospital room with a view of New York Harbor, recalls how his grandfather—“Merciless Monaghan,” the “stingiest man in Brooklyn” got “all twisted up with the Statue of Liberty.” Old Monaghan (played by Charles Laughton) refused to make a contribution to the Statue Fund and, for decades to come, stubbornly defended his position until, one day, his grandson entreats him to take a ferry to Bedloe’s Island:

GRANDPA. What I can’t understand is what all these people see in that statue that they’ll keep a boat like this full makin’ the trip, year in year out. To hear the newspapers talk, if the statue was gone we’d be at war with the nation that stole her the followin’ mornin’ early. All it is is a big pile of French copper. 

YOUNG MONAGHAN. The teacher says it shows us that we got liberty. 

GRANDPA. Bah! If you’ve got liberty you don’t need a statue to tell you you got it; and if you haven’t got liberty no statue’s going to do you any good tellin’ you you got it. It was a criminal waste of the people’s money. 

Among the visitors to Bedloe Island is a veteran of the Spanish-American War. Celebrating the birthday of his fallen brother by visiting the “only stone he’s got,” the veteran convinces the old man that the “statue kinda looks like what we believe.”

Profoundly moved, Monaghan asks to be left alone while inspecting the inscription at the base of the statue: 

GRANDPA (to himself). “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled
masses . . .” 

(Music: Swells from a sneak to full, then under to background.) 

YOUNG MONAGHAN. I ran over and got my peanuts and stood there cracking them open, looking around. And I happened to glance over to grampa. He had his nose right up to that bronze tablet, reading it. And then he reached into his pocket and kinda spied around over his eyeglasses to see if anybody was looking, and then he took out a coin and stuck it in a crack of cement over the tablet. 

(Biz: Coin falling onto concrete.) 

YOUNG MONAGHAN. It fell out and before he could pick it up I got a look at it. It was a half a buck. He picked it up and pressed it into the crack so it stuck. And then he came over to me and we went home. 

(Music: Changes to stronger, more forceful theme.) 

That’s why, when I look at her now through this window, I remember that time and that poem [. . .].

Unlike the published script (as it appeared in the 1948 anthology Plays from Radio), the broadcast play concludes with the last lines of Emma Lazarus’s famous if oft misquoted sonnet “The New Colossus.”

I am very critical of Arthur Miller in Etherized Victorians; but, for all its sentimental propagandizing, “Grandpa and the Statue” is one of Miller’s most affecting plays for the medium. As I read and listen to it now, so far away from New York City, I get a little wistful; and yet, the message is not lost on me, either, as I think of the larger picture, the ideals worth our investment, and the funds unreplenished, that makes my pouting for a few weeks in the Big Apple seem downright petty. Besides, I’ve got the airwaves to carry me through and keep me buoyant when I go “Oh, boy.”

Related recordings
”Grandpa and the Statue 26 March 1945

Related writings
“Politics and Plumbing” (Arthur Miller’s “Pussycat”)
“Arthur Miller Asks Americans to ‘Listen for the Sound of Wings’”
“Arthur Miller Unleashes a Pussycat”

Fat Lies Tuesday; or, Time to Love and Time to Hate

This is a day for disguises, and a night of unmasking. A time to let yourself go, and a time to let go of something. A night to make an ass of yourself, and a morning to mark yourself with ash. Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fastnacht. Back where I come from—Germany’s Rhineland—carnival is a major holiday, an interlude set aside for delusions, for letting powerless misrule themselves: laborers parading in the streets without demanding higher wages, farmers nominating mock kings and drag queens to preside over their revels; women storming the houses of local government to perform the ritual of emasculation by cutting off the ties that hang from the necks of the ruling sex. It is a riotous spectacle designed to preserve what is; a staged and sanctioned ersatz rebellion that exhausts itself in hangovers.

Sometimes, the disillusionment creeps up on you only gradually. Upon reflection, that wondrous “what if” begins to sound more like sobering “as if!” You may have had a good time—but, when it comes right down to it, you’ve been had.

As a political instrument, the radio is not unlike Mardi Gras. Tuning in after a day’s work is a carnivalesque experience—the partaking of a communal pancake made from the eggs with which you didn’t dare to pelt those who own most of the chicken. It is the allotted substitute for the half-forgotten voice that those content to listen tend to deny themselves. Broadcasting was, after all, an industry in the service of keeping things as they are or as they ought to be—according to those who operate (within) it.

Radio’s most prominent voices belonged to the fools and the tricksters—Ed Wynn, Baron Munchausen, and the irreverent, imaginary Charlie McCarthy; but during the lean years of depression and war, a period when the medium was at its most influential, radio also coaxed listeners into making sacrifices by driving home their frugality or fortitude could make a difference. One such Atwater-Lent offering was “The Women Stayed at Home,” first heard on this day, 24 February, in 1940. It was written by Arch Oboler, the medium’s foremost melodramatist. If one contemporary source is to be believed, Oboler penned more than four hundred plays between 1935 and 1940 alone. The bulk of his output may be classified either as schlock or as propaganda; except that much of his work is not either, it is both.

There is jolly little cheer in “The Women Stayed at Home,” starring Norma Shearer, whose 1939 screen success The Women may well have suggested the title. Not that, aside from the performer and the spurious message of female empowerment, there are any similarities between those two vehicles. The opening scene of the latter is the “wind-wept” coast of an unspecified country.

It is night. For once the sea is calm. It waits ominously upon the edge offshore where sits a woman and an old man. For a long time they have sat quietly, but now woman speaks to the old man, and her words lift out to the sea on the rush of the wind. . . .

The woman is Celia. The old man is one of us—a listener. Shortly after her wedding, Celia’s fisherman husband perishes at sea. When war breaks out, she feels that she has nothing for which to live or fight. Being refused a chance to be of use to the community, she decides to drown herself. In the attempt, she happens upon a body in the water, the body of a man yet living—a “man from an enemy boat.” Torn between her civic duty and her moral responsibility, Celia decides to be a nurse to Carl, the German stranger whose needs and gratitude imbue her with a sense of purpose that gradually turns into love. Aware of having placed Celia in a precarious position, Carl disappears; but Celia, no longer lonely, is convinced that he will return to her one day.

There was a market for such sentiment prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the isolationist lobby was still strong and outspoken responses to fascism were rarely heard on the air. In 1942, when the play was published, Oboler tried to justify its inclusion in This Freedom by arguing that “after a while, you find yourself hating too much”—a justification clearly tagged on since, back in 1940, even a prominent writer like Oboler could not get away with overtly opposing the policy of neutrality by inciting anger and directing it toward a foreign national target.

When the play was revived almost exactly four years later, in February 1944, the situation had long changed and the playwright was quick to adjust the message to suit the occasion that was Everything for the Boys, a variety program for American servicemen. Oboler had turned into a staunch advocate of hatred. That is, he argued it to be more effective to make Americans hate the enemy than love their own country. It was hate that got things done.

The pseudo-pacifist “Women,” now headed by Mercedes McCambridge, became a patriotic morale booster set in Norway under German occupation. The stranger washed ashore is now a British flyer (played by Ronald Colman). Celia’s dilemma: whether to hide the man or nurse him back to fighting form. After he is gone, a newly invigorated Celia declares:

I like to think that he knows I’m fighting now, too. For the good people. Some day the fighting will be over. It must end. He’ll come back to me. I’ll never be lonely any more.

“The Women Stayed at Home” is clearly of the ready-mix, on demand variety; but it takes a comparative taste test to expose both versions as sham. Real conflict is reduced to melodramatic opportunity; genuine emotion whipped up to achieve whatever was expedient. Sure, there was a time to love and a time to hate—and Arch Oboler had just the words to paint the sign of the times in whatever color suited the mood.

When anti-war laments were popular, Oboler taught them be mindful of how Johnny Got His Gun and what good it did him. He introduced Americans to a “Steel” worker ashamed of being in the service of making war. “The Women Stayed at Home” betrays the opportunist who knew how to keep the pot boiling, a trader in sentiment who did not hesitate to discard supposedly outmoded principles like so many rotten eggs.

Whatever you give up for Lent, keep your integrity.

Related recordings
”The Women Stayed at Home,” Everyman’s Theater (24 Feb. 1940)
“The Women Stayed at Home,” Everything for the Boys (22 February 1944)

Related Writings
“Senseless: One Soldier’s Fight to Speak Against War” (on Oboler’s adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun)
“Bette Davis Gives Birth to Arch Oboler’s ‘American’”
“‘. . . originally written for Bette Davis’: Arch Oboler’s ‘Alter Ego’”
“Hollywood Star Kay Francis Makes Paralysis Sound Like Paradise”
“Mercedes McCambridge, Airwaves Advocate”

“I hold no animosity toward the Jews”: The Father Coughlin Factor

Listeners tuning in to station WHBI (Newark, New Jersey) on this day, 11 December, in 1938, were reminded that what they were about to hear was “in no sense a donated hour.” The broadcast was “paid for at full commercial rates”; and as long as they desired Father Coughlin into their homes, he would be “glad to speak fearlessly and courageously” from the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, from whence he spread what was billed as a “message of Christianity and Americanism to Catholic and Protestant and religious Jew.”

As Siegel and Siegel point out in their aforementioned study Radio and the Jews (2007), Father Coughlin was increasingly coming under attack and, in the fall of 1938, some stations no longer carried his weekly radio addresses, once heard by as many as forty-five million Americans. While anxious to defend himself, Coughlin was not about to recant or withdraw. In his 11 December broadcast, he expounded again on his favorite subject, “persecution and Communism,” by which he meant the persecution of American Christians by Communist Jews. It was his “desire as a non-Jew,” Coughlin insisted, to tell his audience, including “fellow Jewish citizens,” the “truth.”

The adjective “religious,” attached as it is only to Jew, not to either Catholic or Protestant, is significant in Coughlin’s defense of his special brand of anti-Semitism, a distinction between “good” and “bad” Jews that enabled him to denounce “atheistic Jews” as Communists. “Show me a man who disbelieves in God, and particularly who opposes the dissemination of knowledge concerning God, and I will show you an embryonic Communist.” In his condemnation of the “insidious serpent” of atheism as manifested in Communism, however, Coughlin makes no mention of atheist Catholics or non-believing Protestants. According to his preachings, the Jew, rather than the Catholic or Protestant, was that “embryonic” Communist.

To inform you what thoughts millions of persons are entertaining. In Europe particularly, Jews in great numbers have been identified with the Communist movement, with Communist slaughter and Christian persecution.

He urged American Jews—the “Godless” among whom were conspiring to do away with “the last vestiges of Christmas practices from our schools”—to disassociate themselves from the Jews in Europe at the very moment in modern history when the Jews in Europe were most in need of support from the free world:

O, there comes a time in the life of every individual as well as in the life of every nation when righteousness and justice must take precedence over the bonds of race and blood. Tolerance then becomes a heinous vice when it tolerates the theology of atheism, the patriotism of internationalism, and the justice of religious persecution.

While “graciously admit[ing] the contribution towards religion and culture accredited to Jews”; while claiming to have spent “many precious hours” in the “companionship of the prophets of Israel,” he got down to the nastiness that was his business at last; for, as he put it,

when the house of our civilization is wrapped in the lurid flames of destruction, this is not the time for idle eulogizing. When the house is on fire, its tenants are not apt to gather in the drawing room to be thrilled by its paintings and raptured by its sculpture, its poetry, its tomes of music or its encyclopedia of science, which are there on exhibit. When the house is on fire, as is the house of our civilization today, we dispense with gratifying urbanities and call in the fire department to save our possessions lest they be lost in the general conflagration.

Any acknowledgment that the “conflagration” threatened the Jews more than the Christians so shortly after Kristallnacht—the atrocities of which he gainsaid in his 20 November 1938 broadcast—are pushed into the attic that are the dependent clauses of Father Coughlin’s rhetoric, which, in its far from courageous concessions, is as disingenuous and invidious as the language of Bill O’Reilly today.

"Everybody talks too much": Dylan Thomas and the Long-Lost "Art of Conversation"

“To begin at the beginning.” Thus opens what is undoubtedly the most famous of all plays written for radio: Under Milk Wood, by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. BBC radio first produced the play in January 1954, with fellow Welshman Richard Burton in the role of the narrator. It had been previously performed in New York, shortly before Thomas’s death in November 1953 (which is the subject of a new book, Fatal Neglect by David N. Thomas, whose previous biography was the source for the motion picture The Edge of Love. Thomas’s poetry is still widely read today; but little is known generally about his other works for the wireless, about which there is generally little talk these days.

Thomas’s most popular story, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (published posthumously in 1955) was originally written for radio, as may be deduced from the attention Thomas’s pays to descriptions of sounds and voices, from the “most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow” to that “small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time,” a “small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole.”

Indeed, as I learned from Douglas Cleverdon’s Introduction to the Folio edition of Under Milk Wood, Thomas had been on the air, whether as poet, critic, or actor, since 1939. Among his broadcast features is “Return Journey” (1947), a precursor to “Mad Town” (as Under Milk Wood was initially titled); it has been published in the anthology Wales on the Wireless (1988). Earlier this year, another play for voices by Dylan Thomas has been discovered and is now being given its first production on the air. Titled “The Art of Conversation,” it is available online until 9 December.

The title is somewhat misleading, since the play is really about shutting up. It is a Second World War propaganda piece, commissioned as part of a “Loose Lips Sink Ships” campaign, the sort of cautionary talk on the virtue of silence exemplified in the US by mystery writer Mignon Eberhart’s “The Enemy Is Listening” (Cavalcade of America, 7 June 1943). In it, a sinister voice (Everett Sloane’s) replies to remark that no “real American intends to give information to the enemy,” that

sometimes, sometimes someone forgets. A word overheard and repeated. A small fact passed on to someone else may mean little to you. It may mean nothing to the person to whom you repeat it. But the third or the fourth person or the tenth or the twentieth may be your enemy. Your enemy.

Thomas’s “The Art of Conversation” is a rather more subtle performance. It permits us to indulge in the excesses of talk by Britain’s most celebrated conversationalists, only to remind us that there are times when—and subjects about which—the word should be “mum.” “I don’t think you’ll find Mr. Hitler with a little notebook under our table, do you?” one careless talker quips; but, just to be on the safe side, the idle talk that ensures is being censored.

Like Eberhart, Thomas weaves a web of compromising voices; yet he dispenses with melodrama and, indeed, as is typical of his compositions, with plot altogether. Instead, he opts for an informal lecture (replete with audience) punctuated by “the lantern slides of sound”: a multitude of voices, some distinct, others choric. All are preliminaries and subject to shushing:

Hundreds of odds and ends of hundreds of hearsays and rumours may, and can, be brought together into such a pattern that a whole Allied enterprise is thwarted or destroyed. A wagging tongue may sink a ship; a stray word over a mild-and-bitter may help to murder children.

However chatty and playful, “The Art of Conversation” eventually gets down to business and brings its message across; at least, it might have done, had it not disappeared for decades—apparently before it was ever broadcast. According to the current issue of the Radio Times, there is no evidence that the play was intended for radio; but you need only to listen to know that it could have hardly been written with any other medium in mind.

Alison Hindell’s belated production slightly condenses the original script (available here in its entirety), but otherwise takes few liberties with Thomas’s prose and directions; a 1920s “nigger” is turned into “negro,” a concession to our politically corrected sensibilities. Few US radio dramatists were treated with such respect.

The single exception is the rather pointless addition of an opening line that is not part of Thomas’s “Art,” but the famous introduction to Under Milk Wood, quoted above. No doubt, the presenters intended to draw the famous poet into his forgotten “Conversation,” so as to validate this lesser performance; but, instead of indulging in such self-conscious reverberations, they should have left themselves out of it, especially since there is enough of Thomas in it to make the lecture worth our while.

If only a discovery like this could get us talking again about radio . . .

Radio at the Movies: Golden Earrings (1947)

Placing Mitchell Leisen alongside Hollywood’s top flight directors is likely to raise eyebrows among those whose brows are already well elevated. Most others will simply shrug their cold shoulders in“Who he? indifference, a stance with which I, whose shoulders are wont to brush against the dusty shelves and musty vaults of popular culture, am thoroughly familiar by now. Respected for his knack of striking box-office gold but dismissed by his peers, the former art director was not among the auteurs whose works are read as art chiefly because it is easier to conceive of artistic expression as a non-collective achievement: something that bears the clearly distinguishable signature of a single individual. Their careful design aside, little seems to bespeak the Leisen touch, which is as light as it is assured. Stylish and slick in the best Paramount tradition, a Leisen picture stunningly sets the stage under the pretense of drama; otherwise, it has few pretensions.

The epitome and pinnacle of Leisen’s dream factory output is Golden Earrings (1947), a sumptuously lensed romance that makes Nazi Germany look like fairyland, replete with quaint villages, enchanted forests, and lusty gypsies. It is a false image conjured up by the words of a paramour with pierced ears. For the darker side of the tale, nearly hidden from view, we are referred to McLuhan’s “tribal drum”—the radio.

One of those gypsies is played by German expatriate Marlene Dietrich, who approaches the brown-face role of Lydia tongue-in-famously-hollow-cheek. To Leisen, Dietrich “was the most fascinating woman who ever lived,” as he later told David Chierichetti, the chronicler of his career. Cast as reluctant lover, Col. Ralph Denistoun, is Ray Milland, whose lack of regard for his older co-star only enhances the screwball dynamics of this improbable coupling. Sheltered by and disguised as one of her kind, Milland’s Romani wry officer is on a perilous mission to evade his Nazi pursuers and get hold of a formula for poison gas, the kind of weapon that would exterminate thousands of gypsies.

Having previously been captured by the Nazis, Denistoun owes his escape to the master race’s slavish devotion to their master’s voice. He takes full advantage of a radio address by the Führer, guaranteed to distract his captors. The scene in which the Nazi officers rise to hear Hitler’s speech and fall at the hand of their prisoner is an apt metaphor for blind faith and mass-mediated control. Unlike those gypsy earrings, the silence of a people whose ears ring with the brass of Teutonic rhetoric is not golden. A mind closed to independent thought and voices at variance, Golden Earrings suggests, is readily silenced. To be sure, this is retrospective romance; and, its ersatz gypsies roaming quite freely, Leisen’s film shows nothing of the silencing perpetrated by the fascists.

Leisen was not about to denounce the medium he had romanced in two of his earlier revues, The Big Broadcast of 1937 and its 1938 follow-up. Instead, Golden Earrings confronts nationalistic, state-run radio with a distinctly American voice of commercial broadcasting. In the narrative frame, the English officer is seen relating his story to Quentin Reynolds (pictured here with Milland), a news commentator known for his on-air missives to Doktor Goebbels and Herr Schickelgruber.

Rather than spouting anti-Axis propaganda or post-war wisdom, Reynolds is shown as a receiver, a listener tuning in to the wondrous adventure of the strangely un-British Englishman who has come under the influence of a nomadic culture foreign to his people. It is a tall tale a commentator like Reynolds, who would later be libeled in the Hearst press for his alleged lack of patriotism, is not obliged to debunk.

The frame permits Leisen to construct Golden Earrings as a romance, told as it is from the perspective of an unconventional officer summoned by his gypsy love. It is all so fabulously escapist that the enormous gamble of glamorizing Germany so soon after the war paid off without causing much offense. That, in short, is the Leisen touch.

To Hear, to Belong, to Submit: The Volksempfänger Turns 75

Nowadays, the concept of not having a voice is so alien to most of us Westerners that we fool ourselves into believing that what we are saying is of consequence, that because words are sent into the world they may also change it. We are too used by now to telecommune via phone or internet that the one-sidedness of broadcasting strikes us as downright barbaric. Why listen and be still when we can chatter and twitter, why take in a thought when we can put out a great deal of thoughtlessness with the greatest of ease? Publishing online or opining about world events on our slick mobiles, we are apt to believe that we have the world at our lips and by the ear. We are given gadgets—or, rather, we purchase them at considerable cost—that encourage us to exhaust ourselves in gossip while permitting others to check that our talk is indeed idle. The talking disease is the talking cure of our modern society: the comforting illusion of having the power to say anything, anytime serves a system that, if our words mattered, would have to resort to more drastic acts of silencing.

Back in early 1930s Germany, Bertolt Brecht rejected radio as a distribution apparatus, a machine through which the few addressed the many, generally in the guise of speaking on their behalf. The German for broadcasting itself is misleading.  “Rundfunk” (literally, sparking around) hardly captures the one-sidedness of transmission. Brecht was looking forward to the day in which broadcasting could be a system of exchange, the kind of wireless telephony now available to us, at least technologically speaking. Instead, German radio cut off all means of response other than compliance. It removed from the dial any voices that might utter second opinions. Effectively, it removed the dial itself by tuning the public to the official channel, and to that channel alone. Today, 18 August, the Volksempfänger turns 75. It was not simply the furniture of fascism.  It was its furnisher.
The Volksempfänger (the people’s receiver) fed Germans with whatever was in the interest of the Reich, that is, the governing body rather than anybody being thus governed. This privilege of being talked down to, of being shouted at and being shouted down, was offered at a discount—a discount that ended dissent in the bargain. Dictatorships, after all, depend on dictation.
Brecht had reason to be wary of broadcasting, a means of listening that precluded response. Does not the German language suggest that the German people are prone to being led by the ear? The German for “hearing” is “hören,” a related form of which is “horchen.” Both are the root of a great many words, and some weighty ones at that. Take “gehören,” for instance, which means to belong, while “verhören” means to interrogate. “Hörig sein,” in turn, means “to be submissive,” and “gehorchen” means to obey. “Auf jemanden hören” means to pay heed. Remove the “jemand” (the anybody), and you have “aufhören,” which means to end, as free speech did when the Volksempfänger became cheaply available to anybody.
Today, we have the opportunity to receive as well as broadcast. We can take in hundreds of channels and put out millions of words. It calms many of us to the point of not speaking up. We can, therefore we don’t. A system that does not take the microphone away from us, that permits us to air our concerns, must be fair system. Why listen to anyone who tells us otherwise? Well, “Wer nicht hören will muss fühlen,” a German saying goes. Its meaning? Those who don’t listen shall feel the consequences.