Moby-Dick, Squeezed into a Can of Sardines

Well, call me . . . whatever you like, but I am prickly when it comes to the protection of endangered species; those of the literary kind, I mean. Take Moby-Dick, for instance. Go ahead, so many have taken it before you, ripped out its guts and turned it into some cautionary tale warning against blind ambition and nature-defying obsession. Moral lessons are like sardines: readily tinned and easily stored until dispensed; but they become offensive when examined closely and exposed for much longer than it takes to swallow them.

Not far from where I live now, in the Welsh town of Fishguard (pictured), Gregory Peck was once seen impersonating the mad Captain Ahab, who, in the eyes and minds of many non-readers, became the scene-chomping villain in control of Herman Melville’s tough-to-steer vessel of a book. On this day, 19 October, in 1946, Moby-Dick was being chopped to pieces for the airwaves. It had come under the knife of Ernest Kinoy. who did this sort of hack job on a weekly basis; the remains were tossed onto the soundstage of the Columbia Workshop, ready to be delivered to American homes like a quick if none too nutritious meal.

Radio was a regular cannery row back then. Now, the Workshop was a classier establishment than most of radio’s story factories. As I last mentioned here, it was billed as “radio’s foremost laboratory of writing and production technique.” Its producers knew better than to present the entire volume in a twenty-five minute synopsis. A little better, that is. Instead, as if inspired by the hyphen that harpoons the original title, they allotted two installments for its audio-dramatic rend(er)ing of the old mammal. They had done as much in their treatments of Hamlet and Alice in Wonderland (as well as its sequel). They were still a thousand nautical miles away from approaching what E. M. Forster referred to as “the song” of the book.

As Forster remarked, Moby-Dick is “an easy book, as long as we read it as a yarn or an account of whaling interspersed with snatches of poetry. But as soon as we catch the song in it, it grows difficult and immensely important.” The “prophetic song” of Moby-Dick “flows athwart the action and the surface morality like an undercurrent. It lies outside words.” It certainly “lies outside” the domain of sound effects and choric shanties—the readily reproduced impressions of the sea.

I wonder whether Hemingway was listening in or taking notes that day (and on 26 October, when the Workshop presumed to have done justice to—or simply be done with—the book ). On radio, at least, Moby-Dick sounded like an extended version of The Old Man and the Sea, written a century later. Aside from the famous opening line and the hunt for the titular creature (which takes up the three concluding chapters of Melville’s 135-chapters-spanning tome), little blubber and less bone remains of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, a book known to many and read by few.

To those picking it up for the first time, the humanity and gentle mankindliness of Moby-Dick—especially its tenth chapter—must come as a surprise. What has happened to popular culture in America that it balks at such pre-Wildean sentiment but gorges instead on the book’s supposed machismo appeal? Is it possible, perhaps, to take another look at this Brokeback Mountain of a whale?

“All my books are botches,” Melville declared to Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom the book is inscribed. They most certainly are, once they fall into the hands of adaptors like Mr. Kinoy.

Many Happy Reruns: Herman Melville and M. R. James

Well, August is coming across a lot like autumn. Fierce winds, cool temperatures, and short intervals of rain put an end to the July heat here in Ceredigion, Wales. Undoubtedly, I will return to hothouse climes next week, when I am back in New York City, where, on this day, 1 August, in 1819, a child was born that would eventually become one of the most celebrated authors of the 19th century: Herman Melville. Moby-Dick, his most famous work—a story everyone knows but a book hardly anyone reads—was filmed, starring Gregory Peck, not far away from here in the Welsh town of Fishguard, where, last summer, I had the misfortune to drown a cellular phone.

Losing a chance to keep in touch with humanity—that is not altogether un-Melvillian. Melville’s yarns, apart from his early Omoo and Typee, are not primarily seafaring adventures. They are stories of the forlorn, of friendlessness and frustrated ambitions. Teaching American literature in New York, I once assigned Melville’s novel Redburn, a devastatingly triste tale of a young man unable to establish meaningful and fulfilling personal relationships. It is a subject to which Melville returned frequently in his work, his Kafkaesque story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” being a prime example. It is also a fine example of literature being well served by radio; and such instances are quite rare.

Those adapting literature for the airwaves were often asked to synopsize popular pieces of 19th-century fiction, to produce hurried rehashes that rarely captured the varied aspects, let alone the experience of epic tomes like Moby-Dick. The far shorter story of “Bartleby,” however, was well translated for radio by the creative team of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. As the host of the series, Ronald Colman, told listeners of Favorite Story back in the late 1940s (the series was transcribed and syndicated, rather than broadcast live on network radio), “The Strange Mr. Bartleby” was an obscure work of fiction. It was owing to actor Robert Montgomery, who allegedly chose it as his favorite, that the story was picked up by Favorite Story and dramatized starring William Conrad and Hans Conried (as Bartleby).

As a short story, it is far more suitable for a twenty-minute dramatization than the novels that were generally bowdlerized in the process. Despite the changed title (the word “scrivener” being deemed rather too quaint and alienating, no doubt), Favorite Story‘s rendering of “Bartleby”—a dark tale in which communication failure is having a “dead letter” day—is probably the most satisfying and faithful Melville adaptation heard on American radio.

A similar success in adaptation may be reported in the case of another author born on this day (in 1862), a spinner of a very different sort of yarn: M. R. James, who shares his first name with our terrier, Montague (pictured). Still somewhat outside the canon of western literature—a canon that now includes Frankenstein and Dracula—James is a highly regarded teller of antiquarian ghost stories. A decade before it was adapted for the movies, his “Casting the Runes” was readied for radio by Irving Ravetch and John Dunkel. With a score composed by the recently deceased Cy Feuer (commemorated here), it was heard on the thriller anthology Escape on 19 November 1947. Unlike Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, which exists in two versions and points up the Curse of visualizing terror as horror, the sound-only adaptation is both literate and liberating, depending on the listener’s imagination rather than showy yet inadequate special effects.

was often and not unjustly accused of playing fast and loose with literary classics. It reduced novels like Moby-Dick to skeletons best left in the closets of those who were commissioned to strip the meat from the bones of such meaty fictions. Shorter works like “Bartleby” and “Casting the Runes,” concentrating on one central idea and exploring a key situation involving a few main characters, fared considerably better on the air. These two plays are worthy of the men who conceived them without a microphone in mind.

We Now Resume Our Regularly Scheduled Life

It has been a week of local excursions here in Wales, days spent sunbathing and splashing in the radioactive sea, bookhunting in Hay-on-Wye (the world-renowned “Town of Books”), dining al fresco, stargazing outdoors and on screen, playing with Montague, our unruly terrier, and being among friends (even after having been critiqued with the candor I reserve for those who matter to me). The occasion of it all was a weeklong visit by my closest if mostly long distance friend, the fatherland I haven’t set foot on for seventeen years. It is to him that I owe the wonderful book pictured above, a splendid addition to my collection of Claudette Colbert memorabilia.

Whenever I venture out to Hay, I return home with a few treasures. This time, I added a book on Harold Lloyd (my favorite silent screen comedian, whose films The Kid Brother, The Cat’s Paw and Girl Shy we screened during the past few days), as well as a coffee-table topper on screwball comedies (a book which I had previously gifted to abovementioned best pal, but with which I was pleased to get reacquainted). However convenient and economic it might be to browse and shop online, the thrill of the hunt (as previously described here), is something a carnivore of a booklover like me does not like to go without.

Now, the people of Film Pictorial, a British publication, are full of it. Legend, I mean, which is a term I much prefer to trivia when it comes to describing pieces of nothing from which to weave whatever your mind is up to at the moment. Trivia is for the mercenary; legend for the mercurial. I shall raid said volume from time to time here on these virtual pages. Where else might you learn whether or not you have a “Film Hand” from a writer who examines the “long little finger on the hand of Katharine Hepburn” or the “thickish fingers” of John Boles and Warren William to tell their temperament and acting skills?

The book also contains longer articles on “The Gallant Life of Norma Shearer” and takes readers to the homes of stars like Harold Lloyd, Bette Davis, and . . . Gordon Harker? Robert Montgomery, meanwhile, debates, along with Jeanette MacDonald, “At What Age Are Women Most Charming” and Myrna Loy reveals her “Own Ideas.” It’s all glossy but telling gossip, which I am looking forward to sharing, along with old news from , over the next few days.

Of course, my week was not without pain and what there is of sorrow in my life, among which my tumble down the slippery steps to my room and the breaking down of our car are the most dramatic examples. My lower back and my left toe still ache; the car might not be salvageable at all. In a matter of weeks, I reckon, such woes—which led to dipped feet in cooling springs and a ride through Wales in an Auto Club truck—will be nothing but cheerful anecdotes to be shared among chums. For now, they are inconveniences, at most.

As I have mentioned before, the weeks to come will be somewhat less than regular. On 7 August, I shall return, however briefly, to my old home in New York City. In the meantime, I resume my journal, hoping it will be appreciated by those who make it a habit to keep up with someone as gleefully out-of-date as yours truly, broadcastellan.

Dark of Day: "Danger" and the Drama Invisible

Well, it was a scorcher of a day—the first I experienced here in temperate Wales. The unexpected heat brings back memories of my many summers in New York City and will prepare me for my return to the asphalt jungle this August. Moving to rural Wales from that bustling metropolis took more of an adjustment than adding a few layers of clothing; but anyone ready to weave life according to E. M. Forster’s motto “Only connect,” which is not a bad motto to live by, there is the comfort of that web of relations that, however remote or isolated you might believe yourself to be, will place you smack in the middle of the world, like a spider resting in the assurance that flies are bound to drop in, by and by. Here is one such moment in the web in which I find myself. You might have to stretch your antennae a bit to get caught up in it.

Picture this: New York City, on this day, 18 July, in 1936. It’s the premiere of The Columbia Workshop, the most experimental and innovative of all the radio dramatic series produced during the so-called “golden age” of . For that first broadcast, the Workshop revived what is generally considered to be the first original play for radio: “The Comedy of Danger,” by British playwright-novelist Richard Hughes, better known for A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), an adventure story that has been ranked among the hundred best novels of the twentieth century.

“Danger” is a sort of Poseidon Adventure staged in utter darkness; a spectacular melodrama of disaster involving three people about to drown in a collapsed coal mine. It is a scenario mined for the theater of the mind, evoked by sounds and silence alone. “Danger” was first produced by the BBC on 15 January 1924, but was still a novelty act when the Workshop chose it for its inaugural broadcast more than twelve years later. Back in 1924, US radio had no use for such theatricals, Hughes remarked in an article about “The Birth of Radio Drama”:

A few months [after the BBC production], finding myself in New York, I tried to interest American radio authorities in the newborn child. Their response is curious when you consider how very popular radio plays were later to become in the States. They stood me good luncheons; they listened politely; but then they rejected the whole idea. That sort of thing might be possible in England, they explained, where broadcasting was a monopoly and a few crackpot highbrows in the racket could impose what they liked on a suffering public. But the American setup was different: it was competitive, so it had to be popular, and it stood to reason that plays you couldn’t see could never be popular. Yet it was not very long before these specially written “blind” plays (my own “Comedy of Danger” among them) began to be heard in America, and on the European continent as well.

Other than creating a situation in which the characters are as much bereft of sight as the audience, “Danger” has no artistic merit. It purports to be philosophical about death; but the fifteen minutes allotted for this piece of melodramatic hokum are hardly time enough to probe deeply, and much of the dialogue is ho-hum or altogether laughable. What makes this seemingly generic if radiogenic play more personally meaningful to me is that it was written by a Brit of Welsh parentage, by a man who chose to live in a Welsh castle, and who chose, for this, his first dramatic piece for radio, a story set not far from the very hills where I found myself after these long years of writing in New York City about American radio drama. Is it a coincidence that I came home to the birthplace of radio drama?

“Goodness knows!” exclaims one of the trapped visitors,

I’d expect anything of a country likes Wales! They’ve got a climate like the flood and a language like the Tower of Babel, and then they go and lure us into the bowels of the earth and turn the lights off! Wretched, incompetent—their houses are full of cockroaches—Ugh!

In the background, Welsh miners face their fears by singing “Aberystwyth”—the name of the town near which I now reside. The Welsh, of course, are known for their oral tradition, for their singing and poetry recitals; their most famous poet is Dylan Thomas, author of the best know of all radio plays, “Under Milkwood.” It is here that American radio drama is still being thought of and written about: Rundfunk und Hörspiel in den USA 1930-1950 (1992), for instance, by fellow German Eckhard Breitinger, was written here, as was Terror on the Air, by Richard J. Hand, published in 2006. It is here, in Wales, that I started communicating with radio dramatist Norman Corwin; and it is here that, after a short break from my journal, I will continue my visits to the theater of the mind.

Yes, it is a web all right, even though I am not sure whether it was woven by or for me. I am merely discovering connections that, upon reflection, are plain to see and comforting to behold.

Old-time Radio Primer: H Stands for Hiatus

Well, how are you feeling today? According to one British study, 23 June is the happiest day of the year. Montague and I were perfectly content, playing and dozing in the garden and going for walks along the lane. Perhaps, the folks down in the nearby town of Aberystwyth were even happier last Tuesday, when they had several thousand pounds thrown at them on the street by a stranger who just wanted to “spread a little sunshine.” Apparently, this local story had already travelled around the world (both my sister and my best friend in Germany had heard of it) before it came to my ears, which, no doubt, were too busy picking up the sounds of .

As grateful as I am for ready access and instant replay, recording technology can render our present-day listening quite unlike the experience of tuning in back then. It is difficult to get a sense of a weekly broadcasting schedule, of certain parts of the day being associated with particular programs, of the anticipation of their airing and the space such periodically scheduled events occupied in the minds of the audience in the interim.

To be sure, the middle of June would have been meant a rather prolonged wait for the next tune-in opportunity. It was during this month (rather than May, as on US television nowadays) that most of the crowd-pleasing drama series and comedy-variety shows went on their summer hiatus. Hiatus, from the Latin hiare, meaning “to yawn.”

As I suggested a while ago, the off-season in radio had initially been a response to technical difficulties of broadcasting during the long, bright days of the year. Now, a hiatus can be a precarious wait, which is why I’d never attempt one for broadcastellan. The question is: will the audience greet the news of your return with excitement, or a resounding yawn? That is, will your show go on even in its absence, circulating in the minds of the multitude? Not, perhaps, if your season finale is as disastrous as the second one of Desperate Housewives.

To be sure, broadcasters did not shut down the microphones and close the studios for the duration. Before resorting to reruns, which became customary in the 1950s, they scheduled replacement programs, some of which, like the Forecast series, were designed to test the potential of untried fare. It wasn’t all filler during those summer months. The Mercury Theater, for instance, was first heard in July 1938. Besides, a prestigious timeslot, one occupied by the Lux Radio Theatre demanded high-profile or at least adequate replacements. One of the most highly regarded programs to have its premiere during the summer was the thriller anthology Escape.

On this day, 23 June, in 1950, Escape offered the western melodrama “Sundown,” the “story of a boy who never owned anything . . . but a gun.” The cast was headed by Barton Yarborough, best remembered today for his portrayal of Texan daredevil Doc Long in Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery serial. Doc and his pals did not break for the summer; they kept audiences suspended, from one cliffhanger to the next. On the very day Yarborough was heard in “Sundown,” another Doc Long (played by Jim Boles) set out for a new adventure in “The Snake with the Diamond Eyes.”

There was time as well for summer schooling. On this day in 1957, Edward R. Murrow introduced the listeners of the CBS Radio Workshop to a word far more ominous than “hiatus,” precisely because it denotes a lingering presence:

A new word has been added to our ever increasing vocabulary. It’s a small word, dressed in fear. To pronounce, not very difficult. To envision, staggering. This scientific word may well become the most important in all languages and to all peoples. It is pronounced “fallout.” “Fallout.” Rather a simple word to describe so much. ‘Fallout.’ Radiation withheld by quantities of atmosphere that may eventually descend to pillage, burn, kill not only you and me, but the scores of generations unborn. Quite a word, “fallout.”

Countering the politics of terror, Murrow suggested that this lexical novelty could also denote the harvest of knowledge, as “words, thoughts, ideas,” withheld in an “atmosphere of ignorance,” eventually descend on future generations. Perhaps, this intellectual fallout is rather too gradual and the radiation too slight. With atomic energy once again on the political agenda in Britain, and threats of nuclear warfare not quite a thing of the past, little seems to have been learned from past horrors.

I wish political leaders could be forced to go on hiatus to make room for summer replacements—especially since some of them seem as perverse as that ill-treated teenager in Escape, seeking retribution beyond reason in an atmosphere of fear and its inevitable fallout. To the restless mind, “hiatus” can mean “pause for thought.”

More Milestone Reflections; or, Quo Vadis, broadcastellan?

Well, I have been away taking pictures. Taking pictures away, to be precise. It was an entirely manual engagement with the arts, involving nothing more than hauling some large canvasses—paintings by the late British artist David Tinker—for an upcoming exhibition. The things we do for a meal and a daytrip to a place where sheep are outnumbered by people (in this case, Cardiff). It so happens that the artist’s widow is Tracy Spottiswoode, who writes for television and radio. She is currently working on a radio play for the BBC, based on a story related to her by her father. It is an incident in the life of Hollywood actor Robert Vaughn, who found himself caught up in the turmoil of the Prague Spring while filming on location in Czechoslovakia, anno 1968. Considering that another successful radio writer, silent film music composer Neil Brand (last seen on UK television in Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns series, which concludes today with a portrait of Harold Lloyd) is coming to visit this weekend, I decided to give writing for the medium another try and return to my own audiodramatic tinkerings (first and last hinted at here).

I have written much about radio, but never for it. And since this 200th entry into my journal marks another milestone (the last one having been contemplated here) it is a convenient moment to reflect on my writings, their uses and purposes. “Quo Vadis” is meant here as a way of mapping out a way, of asking myself what to do next with and within this forum, another opportunity of looking back, listening ahead, and saying thanks to all those who have been reading and commenting over the past five months. Writing in such a marginalized field—and writing in such a marginalizing style about it—can be a rather lonely pursuit.

Perhaps I am craving a larger audience than I am enjoying here; but writing an audio play (for the first time since high school) is merely another creative response to my ongoing engagement with radio. And, if the lacking response to Larry Gelbart’s recent radio satire “Abrogate” (as discussed here) is any indication, there may not be a large audience—or a large vocal one—for such writing either.

That said, there will be less of me, here, in the next few weeks, weeks that will involve gathering new impressions elsewhere, in London and New York City. As you may recall, when last I was in New York, I very nearly went out of my mind going in search of a wireless network to post my writings—not the kind of part in the theater of the mind I had in mine.

The recent acquisitions you will find on my bookshelf (including Arch Oboler’s Fourteen Radio Plays, Abbot’s Handbook of Broadcasting, and Wylie’s 1938/39 and 1939/40 Best Broadcasts, all pictured above) provide models and instructions for the wireless tyro. Today’s writers can learn a lot from the old practitioners, restraint as they were by commercial ties. Radio plays can be talky and tiresome, so intellectual as to become insipid. A healthy dose of melodrama and a helping of sound effects sure liven things up. At least, I hope they will in my efforts at soundstaging. I might exhibit some of my experiments in radio writing on my podcast site.

So, if you enjoy plays for the ear—or derive pleasure hearing about someone struggling to give prospective listeners an earful—you might find my forthcoming discussions about aural storytelling and sound effects of some interest. Please stay tuned . . .

Many Happy Reruns: Katharine Hepburn and Leslie Charteris

Well, I prefer doing it slowly, in narrow, dusty aisles, surrounded by strangers. Browsing for second-hand books, I mean. Nowadays, it is so much easier, and often cheaper, to pick up that elusive volume by going online, rather than making a day of it in out-of-the-way bookstores, antique shops, or flea markets. I’m not giving up on that experience, though—on the thrill of the hunt and the triumph of the catch. Hay-on-Wye, where I went yesterday, is the very place for such a literati safari. It is a tiny Welsh village with a population of about 1500; but its narrow streets are lined with about forty bookstores, some of which specialize in Hollywood cinema and crime fiction. That’s where Hepburn and Charteris, both born on this day in 1907, will come in . . . eventually.

Yesterday, I came home with a little something for my Claudette Colbert collection (pictured), with another copy of Norman Corwin’s Thirteen by Corwin (a fine one with dust jacket, previously owned by the BBC research department), and a title from the Directors Guild of America Oral History series, an interview with television pioneer Worthington Miner. Prior to entering television in the late 1930s (yes, NBC did have a television schedule back then, even though only a few thousand Americans owned a set), Miner had been a theatrical producer in the 1930s; and, in March 1937, his leading lady was none other than Ms. Hepburn, who starred in an adaptation of Jane Eyre (previously discussed here).

According to Miner,

Katie was a wonderful Jane; it was her cup of tea, and she sparkled. But we had a dreadful Rochester and an even worse last act. [. . .] As a result, we decided to book it on the road for a few months and not risk bringing it into New York. For weeks on end it battled the elements, storms and tornados, floods and disasters, without an empty seat in the house. Katie’s name was already a prodigious drawn in the hinterlands. Jane Eyre made a tidy profit, but the kudos was nil for any of us, even Katie herself.

Years, later, Miner was involved in securing the rights Long Day’s Journey Into Night for another producer, with whom Miner strongly disagreed about Hepburn in the role of Mary Tyrone. Miner believed that Hepburn—a “mercurial, unpredictable performer”—was utterly “wrong” for the part. In the “right” role (Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, for instance, which she reprised in several radio productions) she was “incomparable, a class unto herself.” When miscast, however, she could be “aggressively, monstrously bad.” To me, Undercurrent comes to mind; Hepburn was just not cut out to be the victim, even when permitted to fight back.

Someone very much angered by Hollywood casting was Saint creator Leslie Charteris, who shares Hepburn’s birthday. I have mentioned previously (and have been corrected on some muddled facts by Saint expert Burl Barer), that Charteris was not at all pleased when George Sanders took over the role of his Robin Hood of Modern Crime. He much preferred Louis Hayward, who had portrayed Simon Templar in The Saint in New York.

Now, one of the writers involved in adapting Charteris’s novel for the screen was Irwin Shaw, whose play Bury the Dead Miner had produced on Broadway and whose final radio play, “Supply and Demand,” he directed for the Columbia Workshop in the spring of 1937, when Hepburn was touring with Jane Eyre.

Perhaps I am overly fond of such six-degrees-of-separation games; but with some Miner assistance, I could almost send Hepburn and Charteris on a dinner date, discussing a role that might have been swell as a follow-up for Bringing Up Baby: a sophisticated screwball-mystery of The Thin Man variety.

On This Day in 1949: Helen Hayes Broadcasts Mixed Messages to Mothers, Midgets, and Miners

Well, it sure seems a lot smaller these days! The globe, I mean. Picture it, if you will: Wales, a secluded cottage, last Saturday. There they stood, unannounced and unexpected, in the middle of our garden: three strangers from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One of these visitors claimed that her great-grandmother used to live in this very house some 150 years ago. Notwithstanding her disappointment at the many changes to the original interior (could we not have done without plumbing for the sake of authenticity?) we all had a nice chat, swapped stories and pictures. Turns out, Wales and Pittsburgh have more in common besides a long history of coal mining.

As is often the case in my daily diggings-up of US radio drama—and my stubborn attempts at relating the out-of-date to our present everyday—I was reminded of this connection as I browsed through my library of radio recordings. I came across a peculiar play called “No Room for Peter Pan.” It aired over CBS in the US on this day, 8 May, in 1949, on the Electric Theater, an anthology drama series starring the celebrated stage actress Helen Hayes. The Electric Theater—named after its sponsor, America’s Electric Light and Power Companies—was staged before the “live studio audience” Hayes had expressed herself to be so glad to do without; but the laughter of the crowd gathered to watch the performers may very well have been genuine, given the queer situation in which Hayes, playing an Irish coalminer’s wife in Colliertown, Pennsylvania, found herself.

What to do when your son is determined to become a miner, work you know to be not only dirty, but dangerous? You’d rather not have him grow up to go below ground before his time, even if it means that your son won’t grow at all. How lucky is this troubled mother to discover that her son, Danny, is a midget or, as the learned physician from Pittsburgh states in his official diagnosis, a “Peter Pan dwarf” (a term better suited for lily and aster varieties). So, to keep the blossoming lad out of the mines and “above the ground, as the Lord intended,” his loving parent vows to turn him into a sideshow attraction: “He’ll be a midget in a circus.”

Danny catches the eye of Mr. Bailey, owner of the Greatest Show on Earth, who is only too glad to take him on. Just then, the protective mother learns that Danny may yet continue to grow, if given the proper medication. To keep him out of the mines, she refuses to let Danny receive the prescribed injections. So, Danny is forced to tour with the circus and learns to like it. He becomes rather disdainful of his poor family home, but is soon cured of his airs when he learns about a mining disaster in which he, as a kid small enough to reach the trapped colliers, may prove his manliness.

The shot of self-esteem is followed by Danny’s first injection. Trouble is, Danny is fearful of the “dirty needle.” His mother is at hand with another sage piece of advice: “You don’t want to stay a midget, do you, lad? You don’t want to give up your growth for the amusement of lazy people. Maybe in the mines you’ll be in danger, but you’ll be living with dignity, like a man.” Seems mom has grown up at last, ready to let her son go and move on—up in height and down in the mines—as he had desired it, all along. As if he hadn’t proved his worth already as a life-saving pint-sizer, doing as his mother bade him.

This play (a script of which may be found in the collection of radio and television composer Wladimir Selinksy, at the New York Public Library) sent out some confusing messages about physical individuality, social conformity, and the nature of life; but, being broadcast on the second Sunday in May, it nevertheless improved on the tired sentiments found on those cards that will give postal workers another backache this weekend.

Meanwhile, unexpected visitors notwithstanding, I’ll be back out in the garden, watching things grow or wilt under my haphazard care, pondering the challenge of arriving at just the right moment to heed advice or ignore it.

"The Island of Death," the Radioactive Sea, and the Legacy of U235

Well, I wasn’t aware of it when I moved here. Not that such knowledge would have prevented me from moving; but it might have made me more doubtful about my seemingly pristine environs—or about picking the catch of the day from the menu of a local restaurant. The Irish Sea, I mean, and the nuclear waste it contains. Research suggests that the Irish Sea, which separates Ireland from my present home of Wales, is the most radioactive body of salt water on this planet.

Growing up in cold-war Germany, I could conceive of nothing more terrifying than atomic power. My earliest nightmare, which continued to plague me in my pre-pubescence, was of a gigantic bomb. An enormous cannon ball of mass destruction, it was surrounded by a shadowy group of scientists whose proximity to this ominous orb had, to my childish mind, already proven them to be beyond trust and reason. It was a tableau right out of Dr. Mabuse, or some such German spy-fi horror, reconstructed in the feverish imagination of a troubled child. I have never learned to love the bomb—and never doubted that splitting the atom was nothing short of abject, indefensible madness.

There is no need to conceive of scientists as fiendish or sinister to realize the destructive force of nuclear energy. Whatever the nature of their tamperings with nature, the madmen of melodrama, figures like H. G. Wells’s Doctor Moreau help us cope with our anxieties about scientific experimentation by rendering the unfathomable so grotesque as to classify it as something entirely unrealistic and thus safely distant in the realm of futuristic or fantastic fiction.

On this day, 28 April, in 1947, for instance, one of Moreau’s lesser cousins appeared on US radio’s long-running series of Sherlock Holmes adventures, luring a group of sideshow “freaks” on his remote “Island of Terror” to serve as the guinea pigs for his secret experiments, a study designed to show that the “glandular defects” of his subjects “produce psychological alterations.” As Holmes endeavored to prove in this decidedly unexceptional piece of run-of-the-mill hokum, truth is “stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” Truth is, however, that fanciful ideas may become physical fact, as the inquisitive minds of the few force man-made realities upon the suffering bodies of the many.

In the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, little was known as yet about the long-term effects of radiation, of the cancers and mutations to threaten future generations. Radio dramatist Norman Corwin was among the first to address the tremendous legacy of the Enola Gay and its deadly mission. “Do not smile, do not smile as though knowing better,” he admonished the nonchalant in “Set Your Clock at U235,” a monologue read on 29 October 1945 by Paul Robeson (pictured above, on the cover for a recording of another radio performance).

Corwin asked Americans the uncomfortable question of what was to become of their “dear-bought, blood-begotten, towering, and grave victory”:

The secrets of the earth have been peeled back, one by one, until the core is bare: 

The latest recipe is private, in a guarded book, but the stink of death is public on the wind from Nagasaki: 

The nations have heard of the fission of the atom and have seen the photographs: skies aboil with interlocking fury, mushrooms of uranium smoke ascending to where angels patrol uneasily.

Perhaps, Corwin had rather too much trust in mythological figures, in those “angels” on “patrol.” He believed—or at least suggested—that the “chemicking that could destroy us, together with our pots and pans and allies, can also do as bidden by us: outperform whole teams of genii: be servile to the meek: reform our wayward systems peacefully.”

The nuclear disasters of the 1970s and ‘80s should have convinced us that the genii do not feel in any way obliged to “do as bidden by us.” Here, science must be content for once to play itself out on paper. To keep those determined to doctor with or deal in that most lethal of Promethean sparks enchained on the rocks of common sense is our debt to future generations. It’s “elementary.”

Rattigan’s “Tables” (Up)set at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

Well, I couldn’t get away from it after all, even at the theater. Not the protests-provoking Condoleezza Rice visit to Britain, from which, to my relief, business-as-usual Manchester is being spared during my stay there this weekend. The stereotyping, I mean. As I remarked in my previous entry, the English up north are tiresomely prejudicial in their approach to the Welsh. Now, I am not from Wales; but I happen to have moved there. And it is beginning to irk me that I am being subjected to scoffs, sneers, or petty remarks whenever my present residence, which is not readable in my Germanic features, becomes known. Asked for my zip code at the box office of the Royal Exchange Theatre—a compliant response to which one ought to resist rather than give so readily—I was treated to some mild sarcasm, partly encouraged by my generally self-deprecating sense of humor. Perhaps I am too sensitive, but I think a line is being crossed when a salesperson calls you “confused” for having relocated from New York City to Wales.

At any rate (and perhaps at a rather too high one, considering this low moment of high-hatting), I got myself a ticket for a production of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables (1954), which is on at the aforementioned Royal Exchange Theatre until 13 May 2006. The two plays so called are set at a hotel by the sea, just respectable enough to be tolerated by those who have seen better days and affordable enough to shelter them with a modicum of comfort in their waning ones.

The predominantly elderly clientele of the Beauregard Private Hotel, Bournemouth, exchange pleasantries—and unpleasantries—while seated apart from one another at their meals. Among them, the impoverished but stately Lady Matheson, the myopic, horse-betting Miss Meacham, the lonely ex-schoolmaster Mr. Fowler, and the formidable Mrs. Railton-Bell and her mousy daughter (excellently portrayed by Janet Henfrey and Clare Holman, respectively).

Now, the fastidious Mr. Rattigan, who insisted on writing plays of ideas—rather than character and narrative—had the seating arrangements all figured out, providing drawings of the stage with descriptions of each, reading, for instance,

Table (down L): white cloth, cruet, menu, napkin in ring, bottle of Vichy water, tumbler, sauce, table lamp, flowers, soup spoon, large knife and fork, small knife, dessert spoon and fork, side plate, roll, plate of soup, ashtray.

The Royal Exchange production does serve the food—which, if the staff is to be believed, is rather awful (“I shouldn’t have that, if I were you”); but does so with admirable swiftness and little clutter. If the tables are rather less personal than Rattigan prescribes, the isolation and forlornness of the characters and the tensions between them become more expressive, more tangible in an austere setting.

As it turns out, Rattigan’s play is far better suited to a theater in the round like the Royal Exchange than a more traditionally narrative drama like What Every Woman Knows, which I previously saw at the same venue. I felt like sitting at dinner (not at a dinner theater, mind you), at a table way in the back, observing fellow guests. Sure, I only saw the back of Mrs. Meacham for most of the time and did not catch her every word as a result; but I could appreciate the play’s ideas, its commentary on modernity, all the more for it.

Not having found a radio adaptation of this highly successful play, which was exported to America at a moment in theater history when radio was no longer seriously considered as a potential medium for drama, I am trying to imagine how a soundstaging of it could work, with varying levels of volume indicating the distance between the tables. Would the microphone sit in middle of the room? Would it move from table to table, along with the dishes being served? Would it favor any one character or would it eliminate differences in class and fortunes by having the neutrality of volume control?

Now, that’s what I call a play giving me ideas as I continue to think about my own attempts at radio playwrighting.