"This . . . is London": Casting John Donne’s Shadow

If “Gothic Nightmares” at the Tate Britain failed to send shivers down my receptive spine, the National Portrait Gallery’s “Searching for Shakespeare” sure did nothing less. I am generally not one to wax poetic at the sight of artefacts that may or may not have belonged to some literary so-and-so. For the most part, I don’t really care what a writer looked like, as long as his or her prose or poetry is to my liking. To be sure, having studied and taught Shakespeare during my college and university days, I am sufficiently impressed by the sight of an old Folio edition. Something else caught my mind’s eye at that exhibition; and it was not one of the supposed likenesses of Shakespeare—many of which have long been proven spurious—but the portrait of one of his contemporaries.

The portrait in question is that of John Donne, a painting currently being offered to the National Portrait Gallery, which is trying to raise funds in the amount of £1,652,000 to obtain it before the purchasing opportunity expires at the end of May. So, the picture now hangs in the Shakespeare exhibition, where visitors have to pay to get a glimpse of it. It is well worth a glimpse, I assure you. I confess the pleasures I derive from being moved by a work of art, whether considered trifling or momentous, and it is not rare that I stand before a painting with tears welling in my eyes or goose bumps sprouting on my skin. Composed by an unknown artist around 1595, the Donne portrait is decidedly of the gooseflesh variety.

It is in poems like “His Picture” and “Witchcraft by a Picture” that Donne speaks to us about attempts at portraiture, about the art or hubris of capturing life, the act of imitating nature or surpassing creation—troubling thoughts for a former Roman-Catholic growing up in the turmoil of the Reformation and its sanctioned smashing of images. In the former poem, Donne writes:

I fix mine eye on thine, and there
Pity my picture burning in thine eye;
My picture drown’d in a transparent tear,
When I look lower I espy;
Hadst thou the wicked skill
By pictures made and marr’d, to kill,
How many ways mightst thou perform thy will?

But now I’ve drunk thy sweet salt tears,
And though thou pour more, I’ll depart;
My picture vanished, vanish all fears
That I can be endamaged by that art;
Though thou retain of me
One picture more, yet that will be,
Being in thine own heart, from all malice free.

In the latter piece, Donne suggests the mental image and the imaged man to be at odds; a painting is a memento mori, which, fixed in time, turns into an unlikeness of fleeting life.

Here take my picture; though I bid farewell,
Thine, in my heart, where my soul dwells, shall dwell.
‘Tis like me now, but I dead, ’twill be more,
When we are shadows both, than ’twas before.

To his own portrait, lost and mislabeled for centuries, Donne referred as “that picture of mine which is taken in shadows.” In my irreverent mind, the striking features of Donne’s shadow-cast face began to resemble that of The Shadow, Lamont Cranston—the secret avenger who, striking hidden from view, laughed death in the face and had a sermon for all who dared to defy the law: “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”

Sermonizing Donne, who once wrote “A Lecture upon the Shadow,” approached the challenge of death in one of his most famous sonnets:

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Donne’s portrait has captured my imagination; yet, having too often crossed—and all but crossed out—the uncertain boundaries between high art and low, it is The Shadow who now runs away with it. In my mind, I hear Lamont Cranston’s defiant laugh as I gaze at the poet’s likeness, “taken in shadows.”

"This . . . is London": "Searching for Shakespeare" at the Novello, the National Portrait Gallery, and on My iPod

Well, I hardly need to travel all the way down to London to go in search of him. After all, the man—or a stained-glass likeness of him—looks over my shoulder each time I fetch a volume from my bookshelves. His raised eyebrow and faint smile seem to say, “Come now, there must be something else beside radio drama to pique your interest.” For some time now, Shakespeare’s works, along with those of many other acknowledged topnotchers of western prose and poetry, have been relegated to the shelves upstairs to make room for my growing collection of books on American broadcasting and radio dramatics. Yet the bard need not consider himself debarred; even on American radio, he enjoyed a prominent position.

The Radio Guild, the first major American drama anthology for the airwaves, chose Romeo and Juliet for its premiere back in 1929. Subsequently, Orson Welles brought his acclaimed production of Julius Caesar to radio’s Mercury Theater (as discussed here), the irreverent Norman Corwin invited audiences to “[s]tand by to hear a Dane evaporate” as he faded out a production of Hamlet, and the CBS Radio Workshop went so far as to stage an interview with the playwright to investigate just “who wrote the works of William Shakespeare?”

As has often been argued, few dramatic works are as radiogenic as Shakespeare’s plays. They were written for the “wooden O” of an almost bare stage and, though hardly without action, rely much more on the spoken word than the elaborate masques, pantomimes, and melodramas of subsequent generations of playwrights. When Shakespeare is translated for the contemporary boards, for big screen or small, text is often in competition and at times at odds with context, as costumes and stagecraft conspire to make the spoken word sound dated or the settings seem anachronistic. On the other hand, producers who opt for the blank canvas of a stripped stage in an effort to let Shakespeare’s words speak for themselves, give the eye so little to play with or feast on that they might as well lead us to the theater of the mind by handing out headphones and recordings.

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of As You Like It, now playing at the newly refurbished Novello Theatre in London’s West End, reduces the forest of Arden (or Ardenne) to a single tree. Yet it proves entirely sufficient to suggest a pastoral setting, to allow for some hide and seek among lovers, and to give poor Orlando, pining for his Rosalind, the requisite branches on which to pin his clumsy (and double entendre peppered) verse:

If a hart do lack a hind,
Let him seek out Rosalind.
If the cat will after kind,
So, be sure, will Rosalind.
Wintered garments must be lined,
So must slender Rosalind.
They that reap must sheaf and bind,
Then to cart with Rosalind.
“Sweetest nut hath sourest rind,”
Such a nut is Rosalind.
He that sweetest rose will find
Must find love’s prick, and Rosalind.

Orlando, of course, doesn’t altogether mind the prick of Rosalind (charmingly portrayed by a somewhat Ellen DeGeneresque Nia Williams); professing to cure his aching heart, she makes love to him while disguised as Ganymede, a simulated shepherd whose name spells boytoy of the gods. To be sure, the gender illusions of dramas designed for an all-male cast play out differently for today’s audiences (unless those of the all-male Propeller Company, whose production of The Winter’s Tale I saw last December). It is in these explorations of gender that radio can be more sophisticated and mature by being less provoking.

Non-visual theater can either obscure differences and tone down what may strike some as Charley’s Auntics and encourage us to look past gender markers like skirts and trousers to discover the humanity underneath. As cross-dressing all but fades into thin air, the sexual confusions take on a new subtlety, however drastic the cuts and unfortunate the synopsizing. Hear for yourself in Margaret Webster’s soundstaging of As You Like It, which was produced by the Columbia Workshop on 7 December 1939, and in which Webster gives her vocal chords a winningly understated if all too brief Victor/Victoria workout.

Regrettably, the single-trunk woods where Orlando woos Rosalind will be felled this weekend, when the Novello will stoop so low as to present an adaptation of the faux ’60s musical Footloose. If you care to go “Searching for Shakespeare” elsewhere, there is an exhibition of artifacts and portraits on display at the nearby National Portrait Gallery, my impressions of which I shall share tomorrow.

"This . . . is London": Fuseli’s Nightmare Revisited

Sometimes it takes questionable taste in art to make us realize how unpalatable or insipid our ready-meal answers to life’s challenges can be. In the bourgeois mediocrity of German suburbia, where I was obliged to wade through the quagmire of adolescence, an installation by performance artist Santiago Sierra is currently creating no inconsiderable controversy by daring to turn a synagogue into a gas chamber.

Media Nightmare

I suspect that quite a few of Sierra’s detractors who think such confrontations of violent history with artistic violence reprehensible will be less disturbed to learn that, some forty years after the end of World War II, the building had been a symbol of Germany’s inability to deal with its horrible past: obscured from public view and unknown to schoolboys like myself, who passed it daily, it had been permitted to deteriorate to such a state of dereliction that it was only deemed fit to serve as a barn or pigsty.

Fuseli’s Nightmare

Iconoclasm, barbarism, and unreason—these were also pre- occupations of 18th-century Gothic art, samples of which are now on display at the Tate Britain. Unfortunately, “Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination” suggests nothing more forcefully than that visual representations of horror are often less than horrifying; less horrifying, that is, than the terrors of which a fertile imagination can conceive and a methodic mind rent from humanity can implement without scruple. Instead, the shock-and-schlock artistry of Fuseli and his followers comes across as juvenile rather than rejuvenating, as cheap rather than free-spirited, as exhausted rather than inspired.

Gothic images are often too crude and obvious to stir the emotions, not unlike the gag-reflex testing effects achieved by today’s horror movies. Aiming at our throats, these lesser Romantics often extract mere giggles and at times guffaws.

Another version of Fuseli’s Nightmare

Not surprisingly, Fuseli’s (in)famous Nightmare painting was frequently mocked, especially in its day, when it served as a template for political caricatures such as the one attempted by me here, one in which liberty is being haunted by images of the Middle East (the camel in our bedrooms) and the ineptitude or rampant ambitions of a certain world leader.

How infinitely more stimulating, I thought, while wandering through the exhibition—which does some violence of its own by pairing sublime Blake with silly Fuseli, or by confronting the pre-cinematic Phantasmagoria with French-revolutionary Romanticism—is the suggestive terror of the airwaves, compared to the horror of the image, whether still or moving.

Of course, I am resorting to another caricature of my own to support—and thus undermine—my point: that the imagination, stifled or silenced by clamorous images, suffered its greatest defeat with the deposition of short-reigning radio by the matter-over-mind medium of television.

"This . . . is London": Florence Foster Jenkins, Again

Well, it doesn’t always take “practice, practice, practice” to get to Carnegie Hall. Sometimes, delusions of grandeur—and a few thousand gawkers in search of the proverbial train wreck—will do. If you are among those who still marvel at the American public’s decision to include Kevin Covais among this year’s American Idol finalists, consider the career of a tone-deaf diva who brought the William Hung-factor to classical music: Florence Foster Jenkins, a coloratura-blind soprano so astonishingly awful that audiences are still pricking up their ears in disbelief some sixty years after her silencing. Call it “Schadenfreude schöner Götterfunken.”

When last I was in New York City, I went to see Souvenir, a “fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins” starring Judy Kaye (and reviewed it here). A few weeks later, I was surprised to discover that another not-so-musical portrait of the miss-most-notes notable was on display in London, where it can be taken in at the Duchess Theatre until the end of April. Of course, I had to see and hear for myself how La-la-la Jenkins was being treated overseas, so far from the famed hall she brought down in the fall of 1944, within weeks of her exit at age 76.

As conceived by Peter Quilter, patched-together from what little he could find about the performer in print, Glorious is the sort of guilty theatrical pleasure few people permit themselves these days, given the exorbitant ticket prices that make the legitimate stage a recycle bin for acknowledged classics and crowd-pleasing musicals. Glorious doesn’t quite live up to its title. It is unambitious, trivial, and decidedly silly. Maureen Lipman, whom I had previously seen opposite Sir Ian McKellen in a rather chintzy reproduction of the pantomime Aladdin, delivers the broad jokes and broader slapstick with pitch-perfection. Only too rarely, when addressing us as Jenkins’s audience, does she become as captivating or “glorious” as the original herself must have been to 1940s concert-goers.

Unlike Souvenir‘s Judy Kaye, Lipman does not go far beyond shtick, not being required or encouraged to do so by Quilter’s cartoonish script, which at times seems little more than an assortment of rather ho-hum puns, few of which you would get away with even in intoxicated company.

Unlike Ms. Kaye—who was just and judiciously supported by a pianist-narrator based on Jenkins’s own accompanist, Cosme McMoon—Lipman is being surrounded by a host of sitcom characters: an irascible Hispanic maid, a womanising admirer, a ditzy confidante, and a society lady appalled at her caterwauling. The situations derived from these fictional foes and associates are far less inspired than the close-up of Jenkins at her self-delusional best.

And, unlike Ms. Kaye, Lipman is unable to end on the moving high note both Quilter and Stephen Temperley (the writer of Souvenir) chose for their flourish. Both playwrights attempt to bring home Ms. Jenkins’s blissful ignorance of her tone-deafness by letting us hear the dulcet tones the performers assumes to be producing. Musical star Judy Kaye gets an opportunity to sing “Ave Maria,” while Lipman merely lip-synchs to a recording. The audiences of Souvenir are offered a glimpse, at least, of the diva’s doubts and fears, while those seeing Glorious will encounter a consummate mis-performer sheltered by a stupefying lack of self-awareness.

“[I]t was certainly rather wonderful living in the head of this unique woman,” Quilter remarks in his notes on the play. Unfortunately, we get to enter neither his mind nor hers. Instead, we are being treated to two hours of Will and Disgrace.

"This . . . is London": Approaching Edward R. Murrow

I have returned from my latest London trip; my stimulated mind is filled with assorted impressions that I now ready for recollection in relative tranquility. Rather than pouring out those impressions like the content of an overstuffed suitcase, I shall meet the challenge of assembling them into a sequence of composite portraits, portraits not so much of myself but of the experience of gathering ideas and collecting thoughts. You might call this manipulation of the everyday a form of “method living”: a mental aligning and creative channelling of life’s vast, fleeting, and potentially overwhelming influences into something resembling a design of my own making.

There is to me nothing more thrilling than the tracing of a pattern in the patched-up fabric of the everyday. Granted, I often impose such a design by snipping off too many of the loose ends and by choosing that to which I expose myself with rather too thorough discrimination, by excluding the ill-fitting piece or neglecting the odd thread. Yet the satisfaction of finding sameness where others might only detect difference is not necessarily the program of a narrow mind. I try to do as much stitching together as I do selecting or cutting away. Atropos, Clotho, and Lachesis—I intend to do the handiwork of all three fates.

One of the threads I chose to follow during my wanderings through the maze that—compared to the comforting simplicity of New York City’s map—is sprawling London was the career of American journalist Edward R. Murrow. In his late 1930s broadcasts from London, Murrow had encouraged Americans to connect with world affairs by bringing the hardship of those under Fascist attack home to radio listeners who, in the confines of their living rooms, might have imagined themselves immune to such devastating influences. Later, he exposed fascism of another kind in his commentaries on misguided patriotism and undemocratic perversions of unity.

After a brisk two-hour walk from South Kensington, across Hyde Park, I arrived at Murrow’s former residence in Marylebone, not far from the British Telecom tower. I took a few photographs and walked on. I experienced no great stirring of emotions, let alone a spiritual connection. Yet the site itself, along with the act of finding, approaching and appropriating it pictorially became part of a design, enforced by the screening of Good Night, and Good Luck. my mate and I attended a day later. It had not been altogether planned that way; indeed, I was surprised to find the film to be still in such wide circulation.

The quietly impressive motion picture and my altogether unremarkable photographs do not so much amount to a biographical composite sketch of Murrow, a man who shaped history by recording it. Rather than capturing his past they suggest his presence—or our need for it.

Much of what Murray reflected upon in his broadcasts—even in reminiscences such as this one from 3 December 1944—is anything but dated, if only you permit yourself to look beyond the names of places and persons and weave his expressions of hope and fear into the fabric of our current wars and crises:

You remember those mean streets in London where so many died; the men stretching canvas over holes in roofs and walls, trying to patch things up before the winter comes, anything to keep out the rain and cold. At the airfield you remember that it was just here you watched Mr. Chamberlain descend from his plane when he came back from Munich, waving his written agreement with Hitler and talking about peace in our time. That was such a long time ago. And you wonder when there will be peace again and what it will be like. . . .

You recall all the talk of a better world, a new social order, a revolution by consent, that marked the desperate days, and you realize that talk of equality of opportunity, of equality of sacrifice, of a peace based on something other than force, comes more readily to the lips when disaster threatens. There isn’t so much of it now [. . .]. 

Europe for a long time will be concerned with the urgent problems of day-to-day existence. The fundamental economic and social conflicts will not have been settled by this war. [. . .] 

For years after this war Europe will be in torment and [ . . . ] you wonder what part America will play in it all.  In battle and in production we have been magnificent.  We have delivered the planes, tanks, guns and ships and the men to fight with them.  The evidence of our strength can be found all around the world.  We’re not as tired as the others.  Our industrial plant is undamaged.  Our homes have not been blasted. We enjoy security and relative comfort and our responsibility is frightening, for Europe will look to us—not for charity, advice or admonition, but for an example.  Democracy hasn’t been very fashionable over there in recent years and there are many who doubt that it can survive the strains and stresses of peace. . . .

Is democracy still “fashionable” anywhere? Is it the gear of choice or an imposed uniform that ceases to be fashion by resembling fascism? Has the current war on terror (or the terror of war) done much to preserve it? Are we still talking about a “peace based on something other than force”? The patterns we discover when engaging with the so-called past are often disturbing rather than reassuring. And yet, to ignore them, to refuse recalling them into our everyday, might be more disturbing still—a wilful refusal to connect that, far worse than passivity, is a violent act of tearing apart the fabric along with its flawed design.

“This . . . is London”: Departures for, of, and at the Theater

Well, I’m afraid this journal entry is going to be all over the place—like my luggage, as I am preparing for tomorrow’s trip to London. I would have enjoyed sharing one of my “What Those Who Remembered Forgot” obituary footnotes to commemorate the radio career of Oscar and Tony winner Maureen Stapleton (1925-2006); but I could not find any recordings of her performances heard on Best Plays, a US drama anthology that premiered on 8 June 1952 with a production of Winterset. Nor have I come across Stapleton’s guest appearances on radio’s Quiz Kids program. So, after some searching, I had to give up on the tribute and continued to plan my theatrical entertainments for the days ahead.

I have yet to see a truly great stage production in London, most of the plays I attended during my previous visits having been less than scintillating. Let’s see, there were the lackluster revivals of The Philadelphia Story and Once in a Lifetime, starring Kevin Spacey and David Suchet, respectively. While colorful and quirky, Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of Edward Scissorhands (discussed here) was choreographically far less impressive than his Swan Lake.

Rather more to my liking was the staging of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which, as discussed here, offered few surprises (being faithful to the novel), but a genuinely creepy finale.

Then again, I’ve always been fond of unabashed melodrama, even though, at today’s prices, theatrical thrillers are a decidedly rare and guilty pleasure. Gone are the days when everyday people flocked to the theater for some choric hissing of villains in plays with titles like The Worst Woman in London or The Ugliest Woman on Earth. I’d settle for a production of William Archer’s The Green Goddess, but doubt whether our politically correct climate—in which even a cast member of South Park balks after discovering his scientologically reconstituted conscience—still allows for the blossoming of such vulgar delights, now relegated to that slowly deteriorating hot house of popular culture, the movie theater.

Imagine a scene like this—as described by Charles Dickens—at one of today’s West End temples of drama:

We were a motley assemblage of people [. . .] . Besides prowlers and idlers, we were mechanics, dock-labourers, costermongers, petty tradesmen, small clerks, milliners, stay-makers, shoe-binders, slop-workers, poor workers in a hundred highways and byways. Many of us—on the whole, the majority—were not at all clean, and not at all choice in our lives of conversation. But we had all come together in a place where our convenience was well consulted, and where we were well looked after, to enjoy an evening’s entertainment in common. [. . .]
Between the pieces [a pantomime and a melodrama], we almost all of us went out and refreshed [. . .]. The sandwich—as substantial as was consistent with portability, and as cheap as possible—we hailed as one of our greatest institutions. It forced its way among us at all stages of the entertainment, and we were always delighted to see it; its adaptability to the varying moods of our nature was surprising; we could never weep so comfortably as when our tears fell on our sandwich; we could never laugh so heartily as when we choked with sandwich; Virtue never looked so beautiful or Vice so deformed as when we paused, sandwich in hand, to consider what would come of that resolution of Wickedness in boots, to sever Innocence in flowered chintz from Honest Industry in striped stockings. When the curtain fell for the night, we still fell back upon sandwich, to help us through the rain and mire, and home to bed.

Perhaps I could have done without those assorted noises and scents after all; but I sure enjoy an evening of unpretentious theater. Unfortunately, both Jerry Herman’s silent-screen musical Mack and Mabel and Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, starring Judy Dench, won’t open until April.

Instead of such revivals, I might be singing the Resurrection Blues. There is Robert Altman’s production of Arthur Miller’s play of that title, of course; but I have never been particularly fond of Miller, mostly due to his denunciations of radio, the medium that not only sustained him during the lean 1940s, but that influenced the mind-as-stage explorations attempted in plays like Death of a Salesman and After the Fall. I’d much rather see Altman’s latest movie, A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor’s own adaptation of his popular radio series.

I’ve still got my eye on Glorious!, that other play about the odd career of vocally challenged Florence Foster Jenkins, one version of which, titled Souvenir, I enjoyed when last I was in New York City. Well, we shall see what tickets I can manage to snatch up at the half-price booth. Next week, at any rate, I hope to share some souvenirs from what I trust will amount to a glorious time in the metropolis.

"This . . . is London": Getting Ready to Take in the Sounds Again

Broadcasting House, London

Well, it has been a rather gloomy weekend, a few hours of which were spent finding a publishing house and home for Etherized, my doctoral study on old-time radio. I have been slow to send out proposals but am aware that I cannot rest on my laurels until they begin to smell. The fresh air being too damp, cold, and swiftly circulated, I sought shelter by the fire and found pleasant company in an unflappable adventuress by the name of Eve Peabody. Surely you’ve met Eve Peabody, the blues singer whose voice, by her own admission, is strictly of the “bathtub” variety? You know, the gal who once crashed a ritzy social gathering with a pawn ticket for an invitation. Yes, that Eve Peabody—the gold-lamé garbed, Bronx Local-hardened heroine of Mitchell Leisen’s deucedly clever screwball comedy Midnight (1939).

There’s much to be learned from an urbane charmer like Eve (as portrayed with pitch-perfection by Ms. Claudette Colbert). Lessons in picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again, I mean. Having escaped a Monte Carlo disaster—a failed system that left her practically penniless at the roulette table, with the exception of that one French coin with a hole in it—Eve takes a gamble by hopping on a train to not so gay Paris.

Alighting none too delightedly with damp and dreary prospects before her, she inquires with sarcasm, rather than incredulity: “So this, as they say, is Paris?” Not altogether reassured by the conductor, she wryly remarks: “Well, from here it looks an awful lot like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana.” I might find myself saying something not unlike this when I step out of the train in London this Wednesday. The forecast is not promising; but, like Eve, I am determined to make the most of my stay.

Perhaps, my idea of a good time differs from that of most visitors, but, aside from the shops and a West End show or two, Edward R. Murrow’s house in Hallam Street is right up there on my list of must-see attractions. As I reported a few weeks ago, a blue plaque has been placed on the façade of Weymouth House earlier this year, commemorating the contributions of its former resident, Murrow, to bringing the terrors of the London blitz home to American radio listeners, many of whom may have otherwise been indifferent or downright hostile to the British, quite willing even to let my Nazi ancestors have their way with them.

“This . . . is London,” of course, was Murrow’s famous introduction to his blitz broadcasts. His reports made a distant fight for survival seem real and urgent—unlike that picturesque firework display that stood in for the air raids in the recent Judy Dench-starrer Mrs. Henderson Presents. After all, radio can produce terrors far more immediate than video or photography, provided you have mind, heart, and guts enough to translate dreadful sounds into horrible images.

Walking through London again, I might do what I used to do when I first came to New York City, which is, besides taking in the sights, to take in the sounds as well. When the broadcastellan journal was still in its infancy, rather than its present adolescence, I contemplated the soundscape of Britain. For, surely, London has one of the most distinct sonic designs of any Western metropolis, the chiming of Big Ben being its most memorable earmark. So, as an exercise in getting in tune with said town, I will tune in again to “A Portrait of London” (20 July 1956), a CBS Radio Workshop tour conducted by Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah, who took American listeners right into the bell tower of Big Ben.

“So this, as they say, is London, huh?” I might find myself saying on Wednesday as I step out onto the platform at Euston Station: but, hearing the inimitable sounds of the big city, I am unlikely to add “Well, to me it sounds an awful lot like a rainy night in the Welsh hills.”

Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Mary Margaret McBride, Commercial Correspondent

There is a plaque at last on Weymouth House, erstwhile London residence of Edward R. Murrow. I’m not sure how much it is owing to Good Night, and Good Luck. (which I have not yet seen); but this recognition was long overdue. They are all over London, those blue signs, telling passers-by of the notables who once lived, worked and made history behind otherwise nondescript façades. Looking up at them makes me feel that I am walking among those who made a name for themselves—or, if the name fails to ring a bell, plain ignorant. What’s in a name? Well, you could look it up, for starters.

Being that I am in the middle of a series devoted to “Wireless Women,” I shall let that plaque speak for itself and switch from the celebrated Ed “This . . . is London” Murrow to one of his most popular if now less well remembered female colleagues: Mary Margaret McBride (seen above in a picture that appeared in the premier issue of Tune In magazine, March 1943).

Born in Missouri (and her voice will tell you as much), McBride began her broadcasting career at station WOR, New York, in 1934, playing the fictitious “Martha Deane,” dispenser of household hints. A few years later, she signed a contract with CBS and was heard thrice weekly interviewing noted contemporaries, writers, actors, and politicians. While few recordings of McBride’s talks are available online, a tantalizing clip from one of her programs is interspersed in this NPR interview with McBride biographer Susan Ware.

McBride is chatting with brazen Tallulah Bankhead, who manages to break a broadcasting rule while politely inquiring about it:

Bankhead: “I can’t say, uh, ‘hell’ on radio, can I?”
McBride: “No.”
Bankhead: “Well, excuse me.”

Not that interviewer McBride was starchy or self-conscious. Indeed, she succeeded in making acceptable what, to the ears of many, listeners and journalists alike, was radio’s dirtiest kind of talk: commercials. Shrewdly enterprising, she was not above promoting the wares of the sponsors. She even turned her audience into advertisers, reading letters she received from loyal tuners-in who had tried the products she endorsed during her talks.

Apart from reaching millions of Americans with her broadcasts, McBride also exerted influence on the younger generation with proto-feminist novels like Tune In for Elizabeth (1945). Subtitled “Career Story of a Radio Interviewer,” Tune In is McBride’s commentary on—and vindication of—her own profession, packaged as a piece of juvenile fiction.

Within the framework of her story, McBride offers advice and encouragement to those who, like everyday heroine Elizabeth Cary, are trying to break into radio without having to churn out serial romances (a career suggested to her by a female colleague): “World War II, it seemed, had cracked completely the walls of the Fourth Estate where women were concerned.”

The title character is one of those aspiring young women who pushed her way through the temporarily loosened patriarchal brickwork at a time when executive doors were still reserved for her male counterparts, too few of whom had gotten, let alone accepted, McBride’s message.

Elizabeth moves from Glendale, Illinois, to New York City in order to pursue a career in journalism. Family connections in the newspaper business notwithstanding, she finds herself drawn to the world of broadcasting; her inspiration is radio interviewer Janet Adams, a fictional stand-in for McBride. Rather than imitating her idol, who started out writing for the papers, Elizabeth is eager to venture straight into radio:

The times—and especially radio—are moving too fast for that. I think a new technique is developing in radio itself. I think that people like Janet Adams are its pioneers.

Working for Adams, Elizabeth is impressed how seriously the interviewer is taking her job; she becomes convinced that broadcasting can be an honest business, run with dignity and integrity—despite the commercials that Adams is contractually obligated to read on the air:

[Elizabeth] had thought of commercials as necessary evils, watching the announcer check off the list of products, everything from tea to toffee, as Miss Adams said a few words about each in the course of her broadcast. She had heard from her mother and other sources that housewives all over America trusted Janet Adams, took her advice without hesitation. But she had assumed that the product part of the program was arranged in advance with the sponsors, on the understanding that Miss Adams would feed it into the program as occasion offered. Elizabeth felt a glow of satisfaction. Granted that radio, as it was organized today, could not live without advertising, it was invigorating to learn that one program spoke its mind boldly, even where sponsors were concerned.

In addition to McBride’s justification of her part in radio advertising and the role of commercials in broadcast journalism, the novel emphasizes radio’s respect for the audience. Reading listener mail,

Elizabeth resolved never again to think of people as the public, to be dealt with on the basis of polls and surveys and experts who glibly listed the things ‘They’ liked or told you what they were able to understand. Why, they understood the whole wide world, these men and women from everywhere who tuned you in—or out, as you deserved—and who, if you were wise enough to keep close to them, would guard you from the awful conceit and self-satisfaction that would swiftly wreck both your job and you.

This is how McBride wanted to be perceived by her listeners. Expressing her ideals in uplifting fictions, she improved on—embroidered and enriched—this cherished relationship. In fiction, at least, she could generate fan mail without becoming the mouthpiece of corporations.

Sailor Duval Did Not Go Out Into That Big Sleep Last Night

Well, I just got back from a weekend up in Lancaster, a town in the north of England not far from that hotbed of Romanticism known as the Lake District. Perhaps I imbibed rather too copiously from the well of romance, which might account for the strange dreams I had while there. Few things are more tiresome, I know, than someone else’s dreams, unless they are recalled by a poet, a painter, or a psychoanalyst. Being none of the above, I ought to know better than to dabble in such recollections; but this tidbit of mental television so closely relates to my general musings as recorded in this journal—and the plans I have for it—that I deem it worth sharing.

Being removed from a wireless network and the up-to-dateness it affords, I had plenty of time to linger in and dwell on the past, a return trip that began at the Ruskin Library. Exhibited there were sketches and daguerrotypes by the noted Victorian art critic (whom I had just mentioned in my discussion of Quiet Please).

At a second-hand bookstore in Carnforth, I happened on a fine copy of One Year of Grace (1950), a small volume of travel impressions by BBC radio drama producer Val Gielgud, composed while he visited the United States in the late 1940s. A brother of noted stage and screen actor John Gielgud, the author frequently commented on American radio acting and production techniques, deploring commercially sponsored broadcast dramatics and their wastefulness. So, I am looking forward to reading and contradicting his remarks, responses I might share in a future instalment of this journal.

While in Carnforth, I also got to look at the town’s train station. It was here that the location shots were taken for my favorite British film melodrama, the previously discussed Brief Encounter. Unfortunately, I did not recognize the scene as such, even though I arrived at it on a suitably bleak and misty day. Nor does the town seem particularly interested in advertising its landmark.

After visiting a gallery in the town of Kendal, where quite a few painting by erstwhile resident George Romney are on display (though few truly outstanding ones), I was on my way to Lake Windermere, picturesquely shrouded in a haze the feeble winter sun was not able to dispel. My camera refused its services; but I did manage to take the photograph featured in the collage above.

Wordsworth found much to dream and write about on this lake:

There, while through half an afternoon we played
On the smooth platform, whether skill prevailed
Or happy blunder triumphed, bursts of glee
Made all the mountains ring. But ere night-fall,
When in our pinnace we returned, at leisure
Over the shadowy Lake, and to the beach
Of some small Island steered our course with one,
The Minstrel of our Troop, and left him there,
And rowed off gently, while he blew his flute
Alone upon the rock,—Oh then the calm
And dead still water lay upon my mind
Even with a weight of pleasure, and the sky,
Never before so beautiful, sank down
Into my heart, and held me like a dream!

I went to bed early that night, set my ears for a while on “Library Book,” a Suspense play starring the none-too-phonogenic Myrna Loy, but soon drifted beyond earshot and reason. I was not beyond gossip, however, and awoke with the feeling—the knowledge—that Hollywood had lost someone far grander than good old Grandpa of The Munsters—and someone rather more formidable at that. Upon my return home, I opened to my laptop and eagerly checked the Internet Movie Database for facts, only to realize that I had merely imagined it all: imagined that I had read a headline pronouncing the death of Ms. Lauren Bacall. As of today, 5 February 2006, Ms. Bacall is alive and, I trust, well. Exhale in relief, and marvel at my murderous revision. “You know how to whistle, don’t you?”

In the murkier recesses of my mind, I had somehow made up this story of her passing and believed it, too, mainly because I saw it all in print, however fictive. Sad to say, my immediate response was that I saw in this imaginary headline ample material for a new journal entry, as well as occasion for some exciting listening. I was prepared to write about Sailor Duval and the Bold Venture, the boat on which Bacall (as “Sailor”) and her husband, Humphrey Bogart (as Slate Shannon, her guardian), took off for some tropical adventure each week in their 1950s radio series of the same name. . . .

Not that I require an obituary to revisit the ladies, dames, and gals of the air, the heroines of old-time radio whom I had planned all along to feature over the next couple of weeks, and to whom my first quiz is dedicated. For now, I am going to close the creaking door on this day (and that vision) like Raymond shutting up the Inner Sanctum: “Good night. Pleasant dreams, hmmmmmmmmm?”

Many Happy Reruns: Portland Hoffa and Les Crutchfield

“Mr. Aaaaallen!” I can hear her none too dulcet voice now. Portland Hoffa, born on this day, 25 January, in 1905. Hoffa, of course, was the partner of radio comedian Fred Allen, on whose show she appeared as his Gracie-Allenish sidekick. Here is how Allen remembered their partnership in his autobiographical Treadmill to Oblivion (1954):

Portland and I started doing a vaudeville act together shortly after we were married.  In vaudeville, when a comedian married he immediately put his wife in the act.  The wife didn’t have to have any talent.  It was economical strategy.  With a double act the comedian could get a salary increase from the booking office.  The additional money would pay for his wife’s wardrobe, her railroad fares and the extra hotel expenses.  In vaudeville, the actor roams the country and the upkeep on the nonworking wife was an important item.  Having his wife in his act enabled the comedian to know where she was all the time.  This made it possible for him to concentrate on his comedy [. . .].

When radio became a challenge [to vaudeville] we accepted it.  We were married until death do us part and radio sure wasn’t going to interfere with this arrangement.  Radio might hasten it but not otherwise thwart the overall deal.  Our first concern was to create a character that the listener at home would associate with Portland’s voice.  That was our problem.  Over the microphone, Portland’s voice sounded like two slate pencils mating or a clarinet reed calling for help.  I still don’t know whether it was the microphone that distorted Portland’s natural voice or whether an element of nervousness was involved [. . .].

[With the exception of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, m]ost of the other radio couples [. . .]  used their marital status and their domestic experiences for comedy purposes. [ . . ].

Portland didn’t seem to fit into any of the accepted categories.  The more we heard her radio voice, the more we realized that a character, a small E-flat Frankenstein monster, would have to be custom-made for her.

And custom-made it they did, even though Frankenstein was more the métier of another important figure in radio drama, Les Crutchfield, born on the same day in 1916.  His work was frequently heard on the literary thriller anthology Escape, for which he adapted classics including Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe.

Crutchfield’s scripts were also featured on Suspense, as well as episodic thrillers like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and the short-lived Christopher London, an adventure series conceived by Earl Stanley Gardner and starring Glenn Ford. Throughout the 1950s, Crutchfield contributed scripts to memorable radio westerns like Ford Laramie, Have Gun, Will Travel, The Six Shooter, and the highly successful Gunsmoke, with the long-running television version of which his name is most closely associated today.

As a radio playwright, Crutchfield made his auspicious debut on 25 August 1946, when his work—unlike the works of many anonymous broadcast writers—was not only featured on but heralded by the Columbia Workshop:

Since it first went on the air ten years ago last month, the Columbia Workshop has constantly sought to introduce new talent to radio broadcasting and to persuade established artists in other fields to lend their creative talents to radio. Today, in presenting “The Path and the Door,” a psychological experiment, the Columbia Workshop achieves both aims.  “The Path and the Door” is the first radio play by Les Crutchfield, a young man who before the war was an explosives engineer and who, feeling that the world has seen enough of explosives in the last few years, now devotes his entire time to writing.  The musical score, which is such an integral part of the play [. . .], was written by George Antheil, who has been one of the most controversial figures in modern music for the past twenty years. Mr. Antheil has many other interests besides music, however, one of them being psychology. One reading of Mr. Crutchfield’s script persuaded him to write this, his first radio score.

Besides being in the same business, these two share their birthdays not only with modern novelist Virginia Woolf, but with Romantic poet Robert Burns, whose famous admonition is entirely appropriate for this occasion: “Should old acquaintance be forgot / And never brought to mind?”