Original? Sin!: Romancing the Reproducers (Part Two)

Well, I did say “romancing,” didn’t I? It may have sounded more like “pooping on” in the entry I balderdashed off yesterday. The accompanying image, by the way, referred to the new television series Balderdash and Piffle (on BBC2 in the UK), which invites the public to challenge, edit and amend the Oxford English Dictionary. More about that in a few days, perhaps. So, why “romancing”?

For one thing, I am very much attracted to and fascinated by remakes and adaptations. I am not one of those clamoring for so-called original material in favor of a smart revision or charming homage. Let’s face it: “originality” is a downright prelapsarian concept. There are only so many juicy stories to tell. We should not expect to be handed another forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge; which does not mean that we should settle for any old lemon.

Reworking a so-called classic can be a questioning of its definitiveness, its very status. It can also mean a translation of a great idea or worthwhile thought into a context and language more accessible to present-day audiences, thus a way of keeping the original alive in spirit, rather than slaughtering it.

As diverting as both King Kong and The Producers might have been, I feel they have failed on both accounts. Yet even though I am not infrequently disappointed with remakes and sequels (which are often remakes in disguise), I seek them out again and again, embracing them—in concept, at least—as an alternative form of criticism.

Last night, for instance, I watched The Saint in London (1939), which aired during the first week of January 2006 on BBC 2 in a series of four Saint adventures. The movie is a reworking of Leslie Charteris’s mystery “The Million Pound Day.” So, I could not refrain from digging up that story from my library and will probably report my comparison in the near future, drawing on the 1940s Saint radio series as well.

I felt compelled to do the same after watching King Kong, of which I found an undated radio adaptation, with Captain Englehorn as narrator. And I might take the same multimedia approach to the Charlie Chan mystery, The Black Camel, having recently come across a first edition of the 1933 omnibus The Celebrated Cases of Charlie Chan at a local second-hand bookstore.

Tracing an adaptation to its source—not necessarily an original itself—often enhances my appreciation or understanding of a work and its workings. It does not follow that the older version is superior by virtue of its antecedents, even though our fondness for it may make us sceptical of any attempts at revision.

While in London, I saw two 1930s plays. One was the Kaufman and Hart comedy Once in a Lifetime, the other And Then There Were None. The latter is based on the 1939 Agatha Christie novel in which ten strangers find themselves on a remote island, murdered, one by one, by an unknown adversary among them. Rene Clair’s 1945 film adaptation is a marvel of both atmosphere and fidelity—right until the very end. One reviewer having his say on the internet movie database (IMDb) remarks that the novel’s ending “would never *ever* work in a dramatized setting, film or stage”—but Kevin Elyot’s new stage adaptation proved him wrong. I couldn’t wait for the play to be over. Not because it was so awful, not because I wanted to know the identity of the murderer (familiar to me from book and film)—but because I needed to see what was being done to the ending. And very satisfying counting down of corpses it turned out to be.

Once in a Lifetime—staged by the National Theatre, no less—was dead on arrival. Even the spirit of nostalgia, if I were possessed by it, could not assist in animating this propped up carcass. Period costumes, smart sets, and fidelity to the script—itself much in need of tightening and deserving of fresher jokes—are no substitute for a director’s knowing and assured handling of material that was still relevant and topical in 1930 (the advent of cinema’s sound era), but that now comes across as a quaint and pointless revisitation of Singin’ in the Rain—without the Singin’. A soggy muddle indeed.

The program for the show supplied a “Once in a Lifetime Glossary” to an audience confronted with a slew of 75-year-old in-jokes. What’s left is a dim farce of decidedly low wattage. Very few directors can work up and sustain the energy to prevent the potentially zany from being plain dull.

In short, rummaging through remakes and revivals can be a disenchanting exercise; but there are rewards in romancing the reproducers, especially if they take you to the occasional gem you might have otherwise overlooked.

Original? Sin! Romancing the Reproducers (Part One)

Well, it seems that complimentary wireless internet access is not yet a standard feature of the average London hotel room. Jury’s Inn, Islington, for instance, charges £10 per day for a broadband connection. That’s about 20 to 25 percent of the cost for a room, and as such no piffling add-on to your bill. So I felt compelled to take a prolonged but not unwelcome break from blogging, taking the small fortune thus saved to the theater box office, the movies, and the temples of high art. Meanwhile, my lingering cold (the New York acquisition mentioned previously) was worsening into something well-nigh debilitating; a numb skull and eyeballs ablaze in their dried up sockets kept me from keeping up with the out-of-date—ever the broadcastellan motto—for another week.

Time healing (or hardening you into accepting) most anything eventually, I am returning at last with something approaching gusto and will try now to sum up my recent pop cultural experiences in a few lines that, it is hoped, add up to a composition fit for your perusal.

Even though I have used the phrase myself, I have always pitied those who, when asked “What’s new?” merely offer the wan reply of “Same old, same old.” There is an art to finding the new in the old—and those who don’t possess this life-skill are likely to be miserable, dissatisfied creatures. There is a difference, however, between making the old merely seem new—which is a form of deception—and making new what merely seemed old—which is a philosophy. Hollywood has always been great at deception; but either its powers or my willingness to be duped are beginning to fade with age.

Take The Producers and King Kong, for instance. In the theater, where revisiting old favorites generally means playing it safe, revivals can be corny or cozy, as Once in a Lifetime and And Then There Were None demonstrated to me. At the museum, people are forever flocking to see the oldest and most reproduced of paintings, as those on display in the exhibition “Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape.” And on the radio . . . ahh, now there’s a repository for the lost and found. Listen!

The Producers hoofed into UK theaters on what is celebrated here as Boxing Day, which is precisely when I saw it. Nothing screams indifference louder than rows of empty seats on opening night (make that “matinee”). I’m not sure whether the Bialystock and Bloom formula of making money by staging a flop will serve those involved in bringing back the original leads of the stage remake of the 1968 film.

I have seen the stage musical twice; back in September 2003 at the St. James Theater in New York City, with John Treacy Egan and Don Stephenson heading the cast; and again in January 2005 starring Lee Evans and Brad Oscar at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in London. Watching a filmed musical is like clutching an opera glass—parts at the expense of the sum. As a motion picture, The Producers was all picture and little motion. Opportunities to flesh out the Little Old Lady Land routine as some suitably bizarre Technicolor spectacle or to go all Busby Berkley with the Swastika dance were squandered in this stagy hokum of hummable tunes and ho-hum jokes.

And King Kong? While hardly an abject failure, this Titanicized remake of Jurassic Park (or the 1925 film adaptation of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World) comes across like a momentarily diverting thrill ride rather than a definitive version of a cinematic classic, let alone anything worthy of a nook in a time capsule.

Like The Producers, which mainly serves to preserve the performances of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick for posterity, King Kong makes little effort to be of its time, to provide any commentary save the by now tiresome postmodernist winks of self-reflexivity. The 1933 film smartly commented on the Great Depression, on the big city dreams gone bust; Peter Jackson’s film recreates the era with all the passion of a miniature train collector (from the shantytowns in Central Park to the Amos ‘n’ Andy sign in Times Square), but has little to say about our times.

Even when referencing Conrad’s familiar and perennially relevant novella The Heart of Darkness, the flashy new King Kong, unlike Apocalypse Now, does this pointlessly. Nor were the sexual tensions in this love triangle played out any more overtly than in the Hollywood pre-code version dreamed up by Cooper and Schoedsack. Might not there be accommodation for a few comments on, say, America’s anxieties about the constitution of marriage, terrorism and its countermeasures, or the future of immigration in a melodrama about an abducted alien forced into slave labor and desperate enough to die for a dream the realization of which those professing to be civilized are prepared to prevent at all cost?

It was beauty killed the beast, all right; but it’s a lack of vision that’s killing the movies. As the considerable decline in revenues suggests, the traditional cinema is about to die out like vaudeville; interactive computer games for the sit-at-home folk are taking their place. No longer able, let alone content, to follow the storylines so carelessly strung together by today’s filmmakers, audiences will want to create their own stories with the narrative fragments tossed to them by the Xbox builders now axing box office profits . . .

Hold on, while I am applying a fresh coat of Vicks VapoRub. Better make that “See you tomorrow.” Promise!

‘Tis the Season to Reappraise

Well, you know ‘tis the season when you are pleased to find the cardboard likeness of Ms. Claudette Colbert dangling from the branches of a chopped down evergreen. After all, ‘tis the season to revisit old favorites, living, dead, or imagined—the season when the prefix “re-“ becomes the hook on which to fasten our sentiments as we remember old tunes, reflect upon past times, and return unwanted presents. To be sure, it takes a bit of effort (and a want of respect for etymology) to respond to each wintry gale with the determination to regale; but as I am eager to rejoice even while battling a relentless cold with ever-diminishing resilience, I am applying any remedy I can get my hands, eyes, or ears on.

So, once I had finished decking the halls with belles of Hollywood, I caught up with the week’s worth of serialized Dickens I had recorded while still in London. I am referring to Mike Walker’s twenty-part radio adaptation of David Copperfield. Having given up on the BBC’s thrilling television series of Bleak House after missing a few installments, I was anxious to get my Victorian fix for the holidays.

The first five chapters of Walker’s serial faithfully dramatize David’s birth and childhood, bringing before us the acquaintances of his youth—shapeless Peggotty, little Em’ly, hopeful Micawber, and the ever-willing Barkis were all there. Only David was missing, or his point of view, at least. Instead of retaining the first-person narration, Walker decided to install Dickens as the teller of this tale, rather than David, whom the author appointed partly as a stand-in for himself.

The charming, well-remembered opening was chopped in favor of some well-nigh inarticulate blather: “When you care greatly about something or someone . . . well, this is a story about a lot of things and a lot of people. It is a story, . . . but is it my story?” A rather bumbling, awkward start, isn’t it, especially considering that the narrator was not only a first-rate storyteller, but a celebrated orator and performer of his own material.

This is how the real Mr. Dickens, who still wrote in complete, structurally sound sentences, had David introduce himself: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.” And these are pretty much the lines Richard Burton utters at the opening of the US Theatre Guild’s radio adaptation of the novel back on 24 December 1950. The BBC may be a refuge for radio drama—but it frequently blunders where US commercial broadcasting used to succeed.

Is anyone else tuning in? The last broadcastellan poll suggested that radio drama is not quite as doornail-dead as I may have made it out to be. I guess I ought not to infer from the silence of cyber-space that no one is familiar with the culture I chose to recover here. And yet, while researching for my dissertation, I realized just how many plays by noted American novelists, playwrights, and poets have been kept out of earshot by those who have us believe that radio drama is neither remarkable nor marketable. It is the act of refusal that turns art into refuse, and it takes some digging to resist it.

My latest poll is meant to draw further attention to this neglect. Few of these plays are still are heard on radio today, and fewer still are in print. Are these works really any worse than the television offerings that spawn glossy companions and trivia books?

But I am being prickly, aren’t I? And ‘tis the season to be otherwise . . .

Dancing with Scissors? Bourne Tinkers With Burton at Sadler’s Wells

Well, I have returned from London—just in time to dodge the “poison clouds” that were expected to blanket the city on 12 December after what the Evening Standard proclaimed to be an “apocalyptic” conflagration in Hemel Hempstead. I did notice the black band of smoke on Sunday afternoon, but failed to match either my observations or my persistent respiratory problems (my cough being a New York City import) with the headlines I had read just hours earlier. I don’t know, somehow bold print on a front page always makes news spell something not pertaining or happening to me. What did happen to me that day was a theatrical experience that, while not quite a blot on the sunny skies of my holiday disposition, left me colder than the wet ashes of an extinguished winter blaze.

I am referring to Matthew Bourne’s production of Edward Scissorhands, the quirky fairy tale created for the screen by Tim Burton and scored by Danny Elfman back in 1990. Burton’s motion pictures are distinguished by a peculiar tension of aesthetics, a confrontation of Post-Modern and Victorian sensibilities, of the queer and sentimental, that conjures up the bathos of a melancholy drunkard slipping in and out of consciousness at an anything goes Halloween bash. The Penguin in the bleak cityscape of Batman Returns comes to mind; or the lonely giant of Big Fish. Sometimes this aesthetic exchange feels rather forced and irksomely disingenuous.

The opening scenes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a movie-qua-computer game about as charming and magical as a dead rabbit pulled out of a plastic top hat, seem as authentic in their winter-of-our-discontentedness as the patched-up seconds of a third-rate Oliver!. With the sweet-and-sour confectionery that is Edward Scissorhands, on the other, finger-licking good hand, Burton got it just about right.

I considered myself both tickled and stirred. Here, the dark scenes contrast with and accentuate the bright in such poignant counterpoint, it is like watching an energetic MTV-age cut of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Unfortunately, Bourne did not manage to infuse his stage version with the same bathos.

Whimsical scenery and a general busyness of dancers jogging about in costumes apparently on loan from a touring company of Hairspray are violently yoked with more or less static scenes depicting Edward in quiet despair. I could have told Bourne that making Edward both move and moving would prove an impossible assignment: you simply can’t dance with scissors.

Edward cuts a dashing figure, all right, but it’s the topiary. At one point, this good twin of Freddy Krueger sheds the shears to take his limbs for a spin; but that only underscores the weaknesses of Bourne’s less than cutting edge production. It would be less painful to watch a clipped wings edition of Swan Lake, the resplendent ballet spectacular that had me in tears at Sadler’s Wells the previous year.

To borrow from an old Saturday Night Live sketch, the modern dance theatre version of Edward Scissorhands at Sadler’s Wells is neither modern, nor dance, nor theater. . . . Now talk amongst yourselves.

A New York Souvenir Is Glorious! in London

Well, I am on my way to London in a few hours, even though I have barely recovered from my trip to New York City, a souvenir of which is a lingering cold. Still, I am looking forward to a weekend in the metropolis, where I’ll be reunited with my best pal to celebrate his birthday and the twentieth anniversary of our friendship. We used to have our annual get-togethers in the Big Apple, but the Big Smoke will do.

While there, I would love for us to take in a few shows, impervious as he is to the wonders of the “wooden O.” I, for one, have had some terrific theatrical experiences lately, including a rare staging of the outrageously bloody Revenger’s Tragedy at New York City’s Red Bull Theater, an all-male production of The Winter’s Tale by the touring Propeller company, and an out-of-tuneful Broadway evening with Judy Kaye in Souvenir. True, the 9 December issue of Entertainment Weekly did not exactly endorse Souvenir, reviewer Thom Geier calling Stephen Temperley’s play “too broad, too shallow, and far too long for [its] modest pleasures.” Still, Kaye is marvellous in the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, the tone-deaf soprano and unlikely recording artist who managed to fill seats and thrill audiences in NYC’s Carnegie Hall, unaware that many came to gawk and deride, not to admire her.

I have seen musical-comedienne Kaye several times onstage and even had an after-theater drink with her, back in November 1992, when she played Sweeney Todd‘s Mrs. Lovett at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Her portrayal of the real-life phenomenon that was Florence Foster Jenkins managed at once to amuse and touch me, even though Souvenir, as written by Temperley, is slight, repetitive, and less than incisive.

You’ll have to get up close and zoom in on Kaye’s features—the snare and shelter of Jenkins’s oblivion expressing itself in innocent smiles and youthful exuberance, the firm belief in her musical disabilities as she refuses to heed the at fist cautioning then caustic words from her hapless accompanist, and the terror of recognition when at last she discerns the cruel laughter of the crowd—to wrest any oomphs from Temperley’s pleasant and chuckles-filled survey of the dubious diva’s odd career. Fortunately, I sat in the third row. Anyone back on the balcony is unlikely to get half as much out of this play, which is suited to a smaller venue than Broadway’s grand Lyceum.

Upon returning to the UK, I learned that another dramatization of Jenkins’s life, conceived by another playwright (Peter Quilter), is currently playing in London. Called Glorious, this version stars Maureen Lipman, whom I have last seen opposite Ian McKellen in the pantomime Aladdin at the Old Vic. Ms. Lipman hasn’t got Kaye’s pipes, but her acting garnered some favorable notices. I am sufficiently intrigued by Jenkins’s antics to judge her performance myself later this year.

How come there are two plays running simultaneously about a 1930s New York City curiosity, a novelty act who, like those making a spectacle of themselves during last year’s American Idol auditions, has become an old joke few can recall? It is encouraging, somehow. Ready to rediscover most anything, the public might yet turn a favourable ear to the golden age of radio. I sure wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to . . .

Agatha Christie and Mutual: The Case of the Airlifted Detective

Well, my gray cells had little to do with it, mes amis. Once again, coming up with the facts merely required some amateur sleuthing inside the ever-widening web. Both Agatha Christie (the Dame who gave birth to Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple) and the Mutual Broadcasting System (the network that delivered The Lone Ranger and The Shadow) came into being on 15 September, albeit decades apart. It was in the stars that the two would team up some day, but the meeting itself proved a not altogether fortuitous one.

Christie, whose Mousetrap opened in 1952 and just won’t shut, is still the most widely known exponent of the British whodunit. Her novels, particularly those involving her two most celebrated detectives—Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot—are frequently adapted for television. Such page-to-screen transfers rarely turn out to my satisfaction. A cleverly convoluted whodunit is best enjoyed at one’s own leisure, allowing ample time for the careful consideration of clues and an occasional consultation of one’s own roster of likely suspects.

Dramatizations dictate the duration of this experience, turning the reader-detective into a mere observer of the fictional one at work. Sure, there are pause and rewind buttons to be touched if one is not pressed for time or pressured by fellow viewers; but technological gadgetry gets in the way of the pleasures derived from being absorbed in the chase for the culprit. This was hardly the only problem mystery lovers faced when Hercule Poirot was airlifted to America back in 1945.

Listeners tuning in to the premier broadcast (22 February 1945) were greeted with the following promise:

From the thrill-packed pages of Agatha Christie’s unforgettable stories of corpses, clues and crime, Mutual now brings you, complete with bowler hat and brave mustache, your favorite detective, Hercule Poirot, starring Harold Huber, in “The Case of the Careless Victim.”

The Poirot impersonated by Huber, a character actor who had screen-tested his affected French accent in Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo, was far removed from the “unforgettable”—and very British—stories conceived by Christie. Indeed, this Poirot, sent overseas for a series of “American adventures,” was nothing but an impostor. And the very authority who was called upon to offer her endorsement, the famed authoress herself, acknowledged as much in her peculiar shortwaved message from London:

I feel that this is an occasion that would have appealed to Hercule Poirot. He would have done justice to the inauguration of this radio program, and he might even have made it seem something of an international event. However, as he’s heavily engaged on an investigation, about which you will hear in due course, I must, as one of his oldest friends, deputize for him. The great man has his little foibles, but really, I have the greatest affection for him. And it is a source of continuing satisfaction to me that there has been such a generous response to his appearance on my books, and I hope that his new career on the radio will make many new friends for him among a wider public.

So, who then was being washed onto America’s shores if the great detective was engaged elsewhere? As I put it in Etherized Victorians, Christie’s preface attempted at once to sanction the broadcast fraud and to distinguish such ersatz from the authentic portrait only the artist friend of the “great man” himself could render. It was a case of careless writing—but listeners to the spurious, anonymously penned misadventures that followed refused to be victimised.

Suffice it to say that the series died quickly, quietly, and largely unlamented, whereas the happily separated partners in crime—Mutual and Christie—continued their respective careers for decades to come.

Collecting Thoughts; or, What I Learned About Blogging from Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza

Well, I’m back from my weeklong trip to the center of the Iberian peninsula (that is, a stay in Madrid, with an excursion to Toledo) and am pleased to report how invigorating it can be to go away, come face to face with one’s own ignorance, and return in a confusion of humility and inspiration—souvenirs to be put to better use than dust-gathering bric-a-brac. To be sure, I still cannot tell one Spanish monarch from another—except for the baby-faced Fernando VII and the big-nosed Carlos III, on the representation of whose none too prepossessing visages a fair amount of oil and canvas were expended. I still cannot order a Spanish meal without half-guessing what might end up on my plate—except that the tapas-and-cervezas cuisine is so lacking in variety as to render an extensive culinary lexicon unnecessary. And I still cannot relate to bullfights, flamencos, or devotional art—except that I know better than to reduce arcane passions to patent stereotypes. I did learn something about blogging, though—and it was the Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza who, however unwittingly, conveyed the lesson.

Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, of course, is the wife of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, the steel magnate-collector who displays his artistic riches at the magnificent Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, a generous sharing of his increasing wealth for which he gets amply rewarded in contracts throughout the city (you’ll notice the name of Thyssen wherever there’s a construction site—and there were plenty all over town).

Unlike her husband, the Baroness only started collecting in the 1980s. She seems to have a taste for the famous or nominal, but little sense of what is first-rate or exemplary. Her collection is overwhelmingly large and, for the most part, put together without much grace, wit, or discrimination. She bought up third-rate paintings of first-rate artists, apparently at great speed, and caught many a masterful painter on an off day. Her husband had an eye—she’s got the Euros. That, at least, was my impression when I walked through the vast and ultimately stultifying Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. So, what have I learned?

In a sense, a blog is a collection of thoughts. It may be regarded as a museum, a virtual storehouse of words and images that are culled from various sites, commenting, like all art does, on the world of today—be it society, politics or religion.  Many bloggers are savvy name-droppers; quite a few exploit their writing for advertising purposes; some are merely providing the odd caption to the works they borrow. Others, like myself, simply try to share what they care about but disseminate thoughts without quite knowing how to reach either a specific or general audience, without being fully aware of the potentialities of their enterprise.

In other words, not all bloggers are good curators of their thought museums. Their growing collections may lack direction or purpose—rendering all but useless what might be of some small service to the few or many; unless the viewer, aware of the individual pieces in the museum, has the freedom to steer past the profusion to approach directly what matters to her or him. In this respect, a virtual collection, like the online version of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, is more useful than a traditional one, since visitors can direct their curiosity into the presence of the works they choose to see or care to know about (as some of my readers did, Googling their way to what I wrote about Valentine Vox or The Free Company, for instance).

And yet, a collection falls apart as a result of such selective viewings, becoming as fragmented as the interests of the diverse public to which it is being made available.  How to keep an online journal like this together—and keep it going?

Any smart museum is, to some degree, self-reflexive about the collection it houses. A truly smart museum, like the Museo Lázaro Galdiano, acknowledges its shortcomings rather than trumpeting its ostensible merits. Over the next few weeks, I will try new approaches to collecting my thoughts for subjection to the splintering vision of the public gaze. I am aware, for instance, that broadcastellan is missing a unifying narrative arch, mainly because I do not want to turn this journal into an intimate if public diary.

Some of the connections between what I label “unpopular culture” and our (or my) present everyday seem forced or arbitrary precisely because the personal link between what I experience and choose to discuss has been obscured (why am I watching this or that film; why am I listening to a specific radio play or reading a certain book just now?).

Rather than becoming more personal, I am going to make more of an effort to relate to others by providing a historic connection to the works I choose to discuss without turning my musings into history lessons.

Thoughts can be gathered anywhere; in fact, Madrid’s streets are a veritable gallery of thoughts—to which above lines from Don Quixote, found on the Calle de las Huertas, attest. Words and images are dirt cheap and trivial unless a thoughtful collector tries to render them precious and significant.  Yes, it was the arbitrariness and the flaunting of Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza’s wealth that made me reconsider the acts of collecting, exhibiting, and sharing my humble thoughts.

“We interrupt this broadcast”; or, How to Be Away

Well, as I’ve been casting it broadly in the previous three posts, I’m off on a weeklong visit to Madrid. Sure, I could have taken my laptop along with me to continue my journal while away; or I might have taken a mobile phone to send messages and images (like the one here, of this morning’s glorious Welsh sunrise) on the go. Instead, I decided to leave both computer and phone at home and to sign off for the duration.

The privilege of being away appears to be one of the disappearing pleasures of privacy. It is a concept no longer readily grasped by those born in the cellular, wireless, and instant-message age. Perhaps that is why the television series Lost has become such a success (surely it is not the writing): to be unavailable to the world is now thought of as a loss tantamount to being shipwrecked. Treat yourself to a retreat some time. Avail yourself of a chance at being unavailable.  Experience the abandon of abandoning your everyday.  To have something to write home about . . . and keep it.

You don’t have to get all Piano Manly about your getaway. Just tell those you care about that you’re out of town or country and enjoy the freedom of being incommunicado. Tell the world to get lost, then shroud yourself in silence.  As long as there is someone or something worth coming back for, eventually . . .

A Soundscape of Britain?

Princess Diana Memorial Fountain,
Hyde Park, London

A few days ago I went to the Tate Gallery in London to see A Picture of Britain. This exhibition of paintings, coinciding with a BBC television series, did not exactly get rave reviews. Critics complained that the real Britain was, for the most part, left out of the picture. The works on display mainly feature idyllic representations of what Britain could be or ought to be, according to followers of the Picturesque or romantically inclined artists. In short, plenty of nature, little naturalism. I wonder how A Soundscape of Britain would turn out, if ever there were such a showcase devoted to national noise. What would be the representative sounds of Britain?

In the US, during radio’s so-called golden age, the Columbia Workshop and the later CBS Radio Workshop offered listeners aural snapshots and panoramas of New York, London, and Paris. “A Portrait of London,” for instance, which aired over CBS on 20 July 1956, took listeners to Big Ben, the city zoo, and Buckingham Palace, with Sarah Churchill (daughter of the former Prime Minister) serving as tour guide.

A few weeks earlier (7 July 1956), the Workshop had taken tuners-in to Paris, while “The Sounds of a Nation” (18 November 1956) sonically evoked the history of the United States. Some twenty years earlier, the Columbia Workshop had presented a “Broadway Evening” (25 July 1936), a noisy report from the bustling Big Apple. Other such programs include “Crosstown Manhattan” (8 December 1938) and Norman Corwin’s “New York: A Tapestry for Radio” (14 May 1944).

While more concerned with the spoken word than with the creation of collages in sound, Corwin conducted frequent experiments in bringing faraway places home to the radio audience with travelogue series like An American in England (1942) and Passport for Adams (1943), as well as the ambitious documentary One World Flight (1947), which consisted of interviews and recorded sounds from actual locations in Italy, India, and Australia.

Corwin’s travelogues did not simply revel in sound qua spectacle; they were propagandistic or didactic in nature, designed to glean messages from or impose meaning on bits and bites of sound. As Alexander Pope once put it, the “sound must seem an echo to the sense.” How, then, could one make sense of Britain through sound? What, besides the tolling of Big Ben, or the water gurgling in the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain (pictured above), or the chirping of robins, or the roaring North sea, or raindrops falling on hedgerows, might be A Soundscape of Britain?

Many years ago, visiting New York City for the first time, I walked through the streets of Manhattan to capture the sounds of the sirens, the pedestrians on the pavement, the honking of cars and the hollering of cabbies during rush hour. It gave me immense pleasure listening to these recordings back in the misery that was my home across the Atlantic. I could drown out the silence and loneliness in ways that a few pictures in my photo album could not accomplish. I have always loved wrapping myself in sound’s cape, escaping in sound . . .