On This Day in 1943: Arthur Miller Asks Americans to "Listen for the Sound of Wings"

As I sat at my desk on this cool, gray April afternoon, looking out onto the Welsh hills, I found myself transported back to—or at least forcefully reminded of—my childhood in Germany. It wasn’t the view of my present surroundings that brought upon these not altogether pleasant recollections; it was a recording of Arthur Miller’s “Listen for the Sound of Wings,” a radio play first broadcast on this day, 19 April, in 1943. While not a great dramatic achievement, it serves as a reminder to me just why I have not set foot on German soil in nearly sixteen years.

It is not any single event that made me vow never to return in anything other than a wooden box; it is the sense of being tainted, of being part of a violent and terrifying past which isn’t past at all, but still very much present in the minds and attitudes of the German people. That one side of my family was somehow connected with one of the characters in the play—Joachim von Ribbentrop, for whose family my grandmother worked as a seamstress—only makes such reflections about my native country more dreadful to me.

Miller’s play dramatizes the life of Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who dared to speak up against the Nazi regime, and act of treason for which he was imprisoned and for which he nearly lost his life. Miller’s portrayal and the performance of the avuncular, gentle-voiced Paul Lukas, make Niemöller sound like a naïve believer who, concerned about the decline of faith in Germany, agrees to side with the emerging Nazi party when promised that, once in power, the fascists would assist in restoring the erstwhile prominent role of the church.

Of course, the pastor realizes his grave mistake—an error in judgment that not only endangered his own life, but led to the persecution and slaughter of millions. Resisting attempts at cajoling or coercing him into cooperation, he yet remains hopeful as, from his prison cell, he looks westward to “Listen for the Sound of Wings”—the wings of allied planes that to him are angelic messengers who signal that the “word is born again.”

Niemöller’s past, his initial acceptance—and indeed support—of anti-Semitism is being glossed over in this propaganda play to emphasize the message that one of the great American freedoms—the freedom of religion—was under attack elsewhere and that it was a mission of the current war to protect such rights at home and restore or establish them wherever threatened. What Miller’s play does not represent is captured in Niemöller’s own words, uttered some thirty years after the end of World War II. Here is one version of the original (which was initially spoken and not written down), followed by my own translation:

Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten, habe ich geschwiegen, ich war ja kein Kommunist.
Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten, habe ich geschwiegen, ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.
Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten, habe ich geschwiegen, ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.
Als sie die Juden holten, habe ich geschwiegen, ich war ja kein Jude.
Als sie mich holten, gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte.

When the Nazis came for the Communists, I kept quiet. After all, I was not a Communist.
When they locked up the Social Democrats, I kept quiet. After all, I was not a Social Democrat.
When they came for the Labor Unionists, I kept quiet. After all, I was not a Labor Unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I kept quiet. After all, I was not a Jew.
When they came for me, there was no one left to protest.

The Germans were fortunate in having had a rescuer in the United States; but enough remains of the spirit of fascism and of professed realizations or belated admissions of its dangers, as exemplified by Niemöller’s story, to make me uneasy about the Teutonic nature. And then, of course, there was the time, decades after the end of the Third Reich, when I, too, was introduced to the von Ribbentrop family, my grandmother having remained loyal to them long after Nuremberg. Perhaps that is why, when I am looking eastward, I still listen for the sound of the right wing.

On This Day in 1942: Bette Davis Gives Birth to Arch Oboler’s “American”

The retrograde activity of keeping up with the out-of-date seems generally ill-suited to blogging. I doubt whether to keep looking back—and looking forward to doing so as I do—is such a forward looking thing to do. A blog signifies little to most readers if it cannot bring them up-to-date on its declared subject matter, be it popular culture, politics, or fly-fishing. I have often felt compelled—and more often been compelled by others—to defend my engagement with the outmoded; indeed, the first comment left for me in the Blog Explosion directory was a terse “why?”

The answer, if I felt obliged to dignify such a monosyllabic and misologic remark with a reply, would be a simple one: because I enjoy the challenge of discovering the relevance of a work of art, a cultural artefact, or an obscure piece of writing not created with me in mind, of debating how much I might be a creation of the mindset behind such products. Not being able to relate or connect to the bygone is a personal loss, and often a dangerous one at that.

Now, it would require some degree of mental obduracy or lack of imagination not to be able to relate to “An American Is Born,” a radio play that aired on US radio on this day, 19 January, in 1942. It deals with persecution and immigration in wartime, which makes it eminently topical. It is also an obvious and deliberate work of propaganda, composed at a time when the word did not yet carry quite as negative a connotation as is attached to it these days. And yet, just how accepting would today’s audiences be of a play like “An American Is Born”? How likely would they find it produced and propagated by the mass media?

“An American Is Born” was adapted by radio playwright Arch Oboler from a novella by Peter Jefferson Packer and Fanya Lawrence Foss. Written at a time when the US had not yet entered World War II, and first soundstaged in late 1940 with Elisabeth Bergner in the lead, it was again produced a little over a year later for the Cavalcade of America program, with Bette Davis heading the cast.

One of Oboler’s favorite leading ladies, Davis played opposite the highly regarded and versatile radio actor Raymond Edward Johnson. Johnson and Davis took on the roles of Czech immigrants Karl Kroft and his pregnant wife Marta. Their US visa having expired, the young couple cross the border to Mexico, where they wait for their quota numbers to come up. “With the left foot first,” Marta insists as they touch Mexican soil. “That means we’ll be back soon.”

Marta, whose father fought for democracy in her native Prague, desires nothing more than for her child to “be an American from his first cry.” In a “world gone mad with the ravings of little men, he should be born in a country that remains sane and firm. A country that believes that man, as an individual, has certain inalienable rights.”

Initially as idealistic and hopeful as the speech Oboler puts in her mouth, Marta is confident that their stay will only last a few days, but is soon undeceived about the process of immigration. For those waiting, the weeks and months across the border are filled with uncertainties, threatened by corruption, extortion, and political persecution.

When a fellow European offers to assist the young couple, Marta little suspects that he is a member of the Gestapo, and that Marta’s openness about her father’s political convictions endangers the lives of her parent and her unborn child. Another immigrant thus intimidated commits suicide, but not before doing away with the enemy in their midst. At the risk of her own life and that of her unborn child, Marta manages to convince Karl to make a dash for it. As the title suggests, the two make their way across the border to the US, where their child takes the first breath of freedom as an American citizen.

When was it that such an overtly propagandistic melodrama last reached a large American audience? The 1991 movie adaptation of the Reagan-era bestseller Not Without My Daughter comes to mind, a film in which even a Coca-Cola sign in a Turkish bordertown was greeted as a herald of American freedom. Are plays of this kind rarer now because Americans have less to be proud of as a nation or because today’s purveyors of popular culture, whether eyeing a hostile international market or banking on the suit-yourself consumerism of the complain-from-the-couch cynic prefer them to believe just that?

Radio did much to hold a nation together, both during the Depression and the Second World War. Clearly, it is no longer a role the media are prepared, willing, or expected to play.

On This Day in 1066 and 1939: Two Conquerors Take Language to War

Not being revisited by the nuisances of power failures and coughing fits I suffered recently, I find myself willing to rise to something amounting to a challenge. Tackling the ambiguities of Archibald MacLeish’s verse drama “The Fall of the City,” for instance. Originally broadcast on 11 April 1937, “The Fall” was again presented by the Columbia Workshop on this day, 28 September, in 1939. The world changed considerably during the time elapsed between those two productions, adding urgency to a play about . . . well, about what, really?

I’ve grappled at length with “The Fall” in my dissertation, describing the confusion and frustration of critics who sensed the play to be significant but could neither make sense of it nor find much consensus among each other. Some argued that it wasn’t even a play at all. Apparently anticipating this reception, MacLeish prefaced the published script with the following disclaimer:

“Any introduction is a confession of weakness. This one is no exception. It is written because I am anxious to persuade American poets to experiment with verse plays for radio and because I am quite certain the radio verse play I have written will not persuade them of itself.”

US poets were not too keen on having their precious wares compete with soap commercials. Others believed that their words were best spread among the few rather than being freely disseminated through channels of less-than-pure air. The horrors of WWII shook up a number of ivory towers, drawing out poets like Stephen Vincent Benét and Edna St. Vincent Millay in fighting form. In propagandist poetry, the ultimate test of language was not whether it could move listeners, but whether it could get them moving, whether it could motivate them to fight battles, buy bonds, or save kitchen fat.

While American broadcasters were training announcers (like the proud vocal-talent pictured above) to hawk the products of their corporate sponsors, Fascist Germany had been exploiting the power of the spoken word to turn open-minded individuals into a league of like-minded or mindless lemmings. “The Fall of the City” opened a debate about mass persuasion, about the media’s role in molding opinions and fabricating war. Its ambiguity is rooted in a distrust of the very medium it employed.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the play begins, “This broadcast comes to you from the city,” a town whose downfall is first announced, then actualized. It is talked into being as the figure of a radio announcer stands by to document the unfolding event. MacLeish’s announcer takes listeners to the “central plaza” of this unspecified city to become ear-witnesses to the resurrection of a recently buried woman who, for three consecutive days, appeared before a crowd of spectators, and who now utters a baffling prophesy:

The city of masterless men
Will take a master
There will be shouting then:
Blood after!

Amid the bewildered throng (some 500 people participated in creating the sound of the crowd), reporters and politicians are heard trying to interpret the oracle and to fix upon a plan of action. Is the message to be ignored? Is the prophesied attack to be countered or endured? One orator, holds that “[r]eason and truth” are the weapon of choice:

Let this conqueror come!
Show him no hindrance!
Suffer his flag and his drum!
Words . . . win!

His words are powerful enough to have people dancing in the streets—until another speaker convinces them to go into battle. While this exchange of words and changing of minds is going on, the talked-of invader—a hollow suit of armor—takes over and the masses surrender. Unlike William the Conqueror—who, on this day in 1066, made Anglo-Saxon words bow to French langue—he does not have to utter a single syllable to make a message-mangled city fall, its “masterless men” happy to have “found a master.”

Summing up this war of words, the announcer remarks that the “people invent their oppressors: they wish to believe in them.” Are these words to be taken for the author’s? If oppressors are inventions—a notion not going over well with some of MacLeish’s contemporaries—then who is to be entrusted with the power to use or control the media capable of creating such alleged fictions?

It seems that MacLeish was apprehensive about the uniformity of thought produced by broadcast speech. It made his own attempt to invade the medium a troubling undertaking: how to convince your listeners not to take your word for it?

“A symmetry of unborn generations”: A Guernica for Radio

One of the many attractions of Madrid I will make sure not to miss is Picasso’s Guernica (1937), the most famous 20th-century painting in the Reina Sofía collection. A report from the commonplace-turned-combat zone, Guernica is a piece of anti-totalitarian propaganda commemorating the world’s first civilians-targeting air attack: the 26 April 1937 raid on the busy market town of Gernika-Lumo, masterminded by General Franco and carried out by the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany.

For a long time, the painting was kept out of Spain and was mostly on display at the MoMA in New York City, where, during the Vietnam War, it became a site for vigils held by members of the peace movement, one of whom went so far as to deface it with red spray paint. It was Picasso’s wish that Guernica be returned to his homeland only after the reestablishment of democratic rule. A swiftly executed and brutally manipulative commentary on modern warfare, it invites comparisons to the three best-known American verse plays for radio, Archibald MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Murder of Lidice,” and Norman Corwin’s “They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease.”

MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” in contrast to Picasso’s painting, overtly implicates the civilian population, including his radio listeners, castigating them for their supposed ignorance and inertia. As in “The Fall of the City,” MacLeish attacks those falling rather than sentimentalizing their plight. His are bold performances, but his cruel warning turns listeners eager for news into silent partners of war who are asked to “stand by” as they tune in while women and children, refusing to heed warnings of an impending blitz, are being attacked and annihilated:

You who fish the fathoms of the night
With poles on roof-tops and long loops of wire
Those of you who driving from some visit
Finger the button on the dashboard dial
Until the metal trembles like a medium in a trance
And tells you what is happening in France
Or China or in Spain or some such country
You have one thought tonight and only one:
Will there be war? Has war come?
Is Europe burning from the Tiber to the Somme?
You think you hear the sudden double thudding of the drum
You don’t though . . .
Not now . . .
But what your ears will hear with in the hour
No one living in this world would try to tell you.
We take you there to wait it for yourselves.
Stand by: we’ll try to take you through. . . .

Millay’s “Murder of Lidice” recalls the innocent lives of those slain by Richard Heydrich, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, in Lidice. Artistically, the play is indefensible and shockingly inept in its bathos. In Millay’s Grand Guignol of Nazi terror, Heydrich the Hangman, whom the villagers have assassinated, is heard, from the beyond, planning his revenge:

He howls for a bucket of bubbly blood—
It may be man’s or it may be of woman,
But it has to be hot, and it must be human!
Oh, many’s the sweet warm throat he’ll suck.

In “They Fly Through the Air,” Corwin’s narrator goes in search of a language appropriate to the negotiation of art and propaganda. As I point out in Etherized Victorians, the play is a response to the perversion of poetic diction by the fascist cause. Viewed from above, Mussolini reportedly remarked, exploding bombs had the beauty of a “rose unfolding.” Throughout the play, metaphors are at war with plain speech, both in the service of motivating the masses:

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

Our rhythms jangle at the very start.
Our similes concede defeat,
For there is nothing that can be compared to that which lies beyond compare.
You see? We are reduced already to tautologies.
It’s awe does that.
The wonder of it all has set us stammering.

What is the language of war? How does it differ from the idiom of peace? And how shall war—often furious but not always futile—be rendered, recorded, and remembered in words or images? When I look at Guernica this week, I will ask myself these questions. Quite possibly, I will shiver when exposing it to the limitations of my shrinking lexicon.