Eve Arden is Our Miss Brooks. Joan Collins is Alexis. Estelle Getty, Sophia. Whatever else these ladies did in their long stage, screen and television careers, they have become identified with a single, signature role they had the good fortune to create in midlife. Grabbing their second chances at a second skin, they experienced a regenerative ecdysis. The character or caricature that emerges in the process obscures the body of work thus transformed. Another such anew-comer coming readily to mind is Patricia Routledge, who, for better or worse, makes us forget that she has ever done anything else before or since she took on the role of Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances back in 1990. Would she forever keep up the charade, or might she yet have the power to make this our image of her disappear? Could she spring to new lives by kicking that Bucket? Those questions were on my mind when we drove up to the ancient market town of Machynlleth, here in mid-Wales, where Ms. Routledge was scheduled to make an appearance in a one-woman show.
Well, it was bucketing down that afternoon, which, had I been metaphorically minded at that spirit-dampening moment, I might have taken as an omen. Not that the rain had the force to keep the crowd, chiefly composed of folks scrambling to make the final check marks on their bucket list, from gathering in the old Tabernacle. Here, the stage was set for Admission: One Shilling. Not much of a stage, mind; there was barely “room for a pony.” Piano, I mean. But little more than that piano was required to transport those assembled to 1940s London, where, for the price of the titular coin, wartime audiences were briefly relieved from the terror of the Blitz by the strains of classical music . . .
The music, back then, was played by British concert pianist Myra Hess who, though much in demand in the United States, put her career on hold to boost the morale of her assailed country(wo)men. Hess did so at the National Gallery, a repository of culture that, at the outbreak of war, had taken on a funereal aspect when its paintings were removed from the walls and carted to Wales to be hidden in caves for the benefit of generations unborn and uncertain.
Meanwhile, those living or on leave in London at the time were confronted with a shrine that held none of the riches worth fighting for but that instead bespoke loss and devastation. From October 1939 to April 1946, Hess filled this ominous placeholder with music; much of it, like her own name, was German—a reminder that the Nazi regime and the likes of Rudolf Hess had no claim to the culture they did not hesitate to extinguish if it could not be made to serve fascist aims.
Taking her seat on the stage, the formidable, elegantly accoutred Ms. Routledge seemed well suited to impersonate Dame Myra as a woman looking back at her career in later life. It mattered little that Routledge did not herself play the piano while she reminisced about the concerts she had given. Selections from these performances were played by accompanist Piers Lane, who filled in the musical blanks whenever Routledge paused in her speech.
Writing that speech posed somewhat of a challenge, considering that Hess never published a diary. According to her great nephew, who created this tribute, the script is based on press releases and radio interviews. Indeed, the entire affair comes across as a piece made for radio, if it weren’t for those occasional darts shot at no one in particular from Ms. Routledge’s eyes, frowns that remind you of irritable Ms. Bucket’s priceless double-takes.
Perhaps, it does take a little more—and a little less—to pull off this impression. On the air, we could hear Dame Myra Hess at the piano. If the performance were more carefully rehearsed, or edited, we would not have before our mind’s eye the script from which Routledge reads throughout. We would not require the distractions of a screen onto which photographs of the wartime concerts are projected. We would not be as distanced from the life that yet unfolds in Hess’s own sparse words.
Never mind that Admission: One Shilling has about as much edge as a Laura Ashley throw pillow. What got me is that I felt as if I were attending one of Ms. Bucket’s ill-conceived candlelight suppers, whose decorous make-believe remains ultimately unconvincing. I found myself hoping for something undignified—a pratfall, even—as if I had come to see this woman but not come to see her succeed. Such, I guess, is the lasting legacy, the curse of Hyacinth Bucket that, as I exited, I was wondering what Sheridan might have done with the money . . .
“As you know, in many countries in Europe the people are only permitted to hear what their government wishes them to hear through government controlled radio stations.” With that reason to be grateful for being an American, uttered on 8 June 1941, veteran announcer Graham McNamee introduced listeners who might have tuned in to Behind the Mike to hear the “sound effect of the week” or learn how radio series were readied for commercial sponsorship to a kind of broadcasting unlike anything heard over NBC, CBS, or Mutual stations. Despite imposed strictures, McNamee continued, there operated “within these countries or near their borders courageous men and women who, opposing the government, broadcast at the risk of their lives the truth as they see it to their fellow men.” Recusant, daring, and hazardous—such were the cloak-and-dagger operations known as “freedom stations.”
For anyone broadcasting—indeed, for anyone lending an ear to those broadcasts—the German government had a word: “Runkfunkverbrecher” (radio criminal). It also insisted on having the last word: a decree to silence those opposing the regime that would turn the cornerstones of democracy into gravestones.
Just how dangerous was it to turn off the Volksempfänger and tune in those secret stations instead? In Voices in the Darkness (1943), British historian Edward Tangye Lean (brother of film director David Lean), offered this piece of evidence from the Strassburger Neueste Nachrichten, dated 15 March 1941:
The Nuremberg Special Court has sentenced the traitor Johann Wild of Nuremberg to death for two serious radio crimes. Both before and after the coming into effect of the radio decree he behaved as an enemy of state and people by continually listening to hostile broadcasts from abroad. Not content with that, he composed insulting tirades whose source was the enemy station.
As Lean points out, propaganda minister Goebbels issued a “list of stations to which listening was allowed.” Along with their ration cards, German citizens received a “little red card with a hole punched in the middle of it so that it might be hung on the station-dial of a radio set.” The card read:
Racial Comrades! You are Germans! It is your duty not to listen to foreign stations. Those who do so will be mercilessly punished.
Warnings were not always heeded and what was “verboten” on the air became increasingly sought-after. So, the radio-savvy Nazis devised a method to catch “Rundfunkverbrecher” in the act. Explaining how that was done was one of the “criminals” who, along with McNamee stood Behind the Mike that afternoon.
Introduced as “Rudolf,” a “young man who [had been] in charge of one of these freedom stations,” the guest speaker, having first explained how such cloak-and-dagger operations were originated by stray Nazi Otto Strasser, went on to explain:
Well, the Germans would set up mobile stations in automobiles. These stations were on the same wavelength as the freedom stations. They would play loud records as they drove through the streets. If you were listening to a freedom station and the mobile transmitter playing loud records would pass your door, your radio would pick up their broadcast and blare. Following this mobile transmitter was another car, full of Gestapo, the secret police. They traced the blare and you’d be under arrest and in a concentration camp.
“Rudolf,” who now lived in the US, proudly announced that he was “becoming an American citizen”—a “citizen of a country that needs no freedom stations,” because “here,” he reasoned, “you can hear the truth.”
The United States would not enter the war for another six months; and even though commercial broadcasters were reluctant to embrace the kind of “important messages” that were not designed to hawk a sponsor’s wares, propagandists were gradually emerging from Behind the Mike—though it would be considered rather unorthodox to have the “truth” delivered in a Germanic voice.
Still, American broadcasters could learn a lot from “Rudolf”—if, indeed, McNamee’s guest was the man whom a British newspaper had dubbed “Invisible Rudolf—the Voice of Austria.” As a contemporary historian, Charles Rolo, describes him in Radio Goes to War (1942), Rudolf was an “ex-Viennese lawyer” whose gravest “Verbrechen” it had been to impersonate Hitler on the air, making the kind of Versprechen (promises) for which the Führer was best known around the world—those he had no intention to keep . . .
This week marks the 70th anniversary of “Operation Dynamo,” an ad hoc rescue mission involving small civilian ships coming to the aid of French and British soldiers who had been forced into retreat at Dunkerque during the for Allied troops disastrous Battle of Dunkirk. The operation, which became known as “The Miracle of the Little Ships,” was recreated today as more than sixty British vessels, sailing from Kent, arrived on the shores of northern France.
During the course of a single week, nearly 340,000 soldiers were brought to safety, however temporary. Many civilians who had what became known as “Dunkirk spirit” were recruited after listening to BBC appeals on behalf of the British admiralty for aid from “uncertified second hands”—fishermen, owners of small pleasure crafts, any and all, as the BBC announcer put it, “who have had charge of motor boats and [had] good knowledge of coastal navigation.”
Eager to maintain its neutrality prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was understandably lacking in such public “spirit,” frequent outcries against Nazi atrocities notwithstanding; but even long after entering the war, the US government kept on struggling to explain or justify the need for sacrifices and (wo)manpower to a people living thousands of miles from the theaters of war. On this day, 27 May, in 1941, one year after the operation at Dunkirk began, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came before the American public in another one of his Fireside Chats.
Although the nation was “[e]xpect[ing] all individuals [. . .] to play their full parts without stint and without selfishness,” the Roosevelt administration took considerable pains to explain the significance of the war, the need for “toil and taxes,” to civilians who, not long recovered from the Great Depression, were struggling to make a living.
If Hitler’s “plan to strangle the United States of America and the Dominion of Canada” remained unchecked, FDR warned the public,
American laborer would have to compete with slave labor in the rest of the world. Minimum wages, maximum hours? Nonsense! Wages and hours would be fixed by Hitler. The dignity and power and standard of living of the American worker and farmer would be gone. Trade unions would become historical relics and collective bargaining a joke.
Crucial to America’s freedom was the security of the oceans and ports. If, as FDR put it, the “Axis powers fail[ed] to gain control of the seas,’ their “dreams of world-domination” would “go by the board,” and the “criminal leaders who started this war [would] suffer inevitable disaster.”
The President’s address—broadcast at 9:30 EST over CBS stations including WABC, WJAS, WJAS, WIBX, WMMN, WNBF, WGBI and WJR—departs only slightly from the script, published in the 31 May 1941 issue of the Department of State Bulletin. Whatever changes were made were either designed to strengthen the appeal or else to prevent the urgency of the situation from coming across as so devastating as to imply that any efforts by the civilian population were utterly futile.
The address, as scripted, was designed to remind the American public that the US navy needed to be strengthened, alerting listeners that, of late, there had been “[g]reat numbers” of “sinkings” that had “been actually within the waters of the Western Hemisphere.”
The blunt truth is this—and I reveal this with the full knowledge of the British Government: the present rate of Nazi sinkings of merchant ships is more than three times as high as the capacity of British shipyards to replace them; it is more than twice the combined British and American output of merchant ships today.
In address as delivered, this passage was rendered slightly more tentative as “The blunt truth of this seems to be,” a subtle change that not so much suggests there was room for doubt as it creates the impression that the great man behind the microphone was weighing the facts he laid bare, that the devastating and devastatingly “blunt truth” was being carefully considered rather than dictated as absolute.
No mention was made of the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” that remarkable demonstration of spirit and resilience. More than a flotilla of “little ships” was required to defend the US from the potential aggression of the Axis powers. The challenge of American propaganda geared toward US civilians was to make the situation relevant to individuals remote from the battlefields, to motivate and, indeed, create a home front.
In Britain, where “ignorant armies clashed” just beyond the narrow English Channel and where the battlefields were the backyards, there was less of a need to drive home why the fight against the Axis was worth fighting.
In the US, the driving home had to be achieved by breaking down the perfectly sound barriers of that great American fortress called home, by making use of the one medium firmly entrenched in virtually every American household, an osmotic means of communication capable of permeating walls and penetrating minds. Radio served as an extension to the world; but it was more than an ear trumpet. It was also a stethoscope auscultating the hearts of the listener. As FDR, who so persuasively employed it in his Fireside Chats, was well aware, the most effective medium with which to imbue the American public with something akin to “Dunkirk spirit” was the miracle not of “little ships” but of the all-engulfing airwaves—and the big broadcasts—that helped to keep America afloat.
When I heard of the passing of Lena Horne, the words “You Were Wonderful” came immediately to mind. Expressive of enthusiasm and regret, they sound fit for a tribute. However, by placing the emphasis on the first word, we may temper our applause—or the patronising cheers of others—with a note of reproach, implying that while Horne’s performances were marvellous, indeed, the system in which she was stuck and by which her career was stunted during the 1940s was decidedly less so. No simple cheer of mine, “You Were Wonderful” is also the title of a radio thriller that not only gave Horne an opportunity to bring her enchanting voice to the far from color-blind medium of radio but to voice what many disenchanted black listeners were wondering about: Why fight for a victory that, of all Americans, will benefit us least? As title, play, and cheer, “You Were Wonderful”—captures all that is discouraging in those seemingly uncomplicated words of encouragement.
Written by Robert L. Richards, “You Were Wonderful” aired over CBS on 9 November 1944 as part of the Suspense series, many of whose wartime offerings were meant to serve as something other than escapist fare. As I argued in Etherized Victorians, stories about irresponsible Americans redeeming themselves for the cause were broadcast nearly as frequently as plays designed to illustrate the insidiousness of the enemy. Despite victories on all fronts, listeners needed to be convinced that the war was far from over and that the public’s indifference and hubris could endanger the war effort, that both vigilance and dedication were required of even the most war-weary citizen. “You Were Wonderful” played such a role.
When a performer in a third-rate nightclub in Buenos Aires suddenly collapses on stage and dies, a famous American entertainer (Horne) is rather too eager replace her. “I’m a singer, not a sob sister,” she declares icily, thawing for a tantalizing rendition of “Embraceable You.”
The very name of the mysterious substitute, Lorna Dean, encourages listeners to conceive of “You Were Wonderful” in relation to the perennially popular heroine Lorna Doone, or the Victorian melodramatic heritage in general, and to consider the potential affinities between the fictional singer and her impersonatrix, Lena Horne, suggesting the story to be that of an outcast struggling to redeem herself against all odds.
One of the regulars at the nightclub is Johnny (Wally Maher), an seemingly disillusioned American who declares that his country did not do much for him that was worth getting “knocked off for.” Still, he seems patriotic enough to become suspicious of the singer’s motivations, especially after the club falls into the hands of a new manager, an Austrian who requests that his star performer deliver specific tunes at specified times. The absence of a narrator signalling perspective promotes audience detachment, a skeptical listening-in on the two central characters as they question each other while all along compromising themselves.
When questioned about her unquestioning compliance, Lorna Dean replies:
I’m an entertainer because I like it. And because it’s the only way I can make enough money to live halfway like a human being. With money I can do what I want to—more or less. I can live where I want to, go where I want to, be like other people—more or less. Do you know what even that much freedom means to somebody like me, Johnny?
However restrained, such a critique of the civil rights accorded to and realized by African-Americans, uttered by a Negro star of Horne’s magnitude, was uncommonly bold for 1940s radio entertainment, especially considering that Suspense was at that time a commercially sponsored program.
“[W]e are not normally a part of radio drama, except as comedy relief,” Langston Hughes once remarked, reflecting on his own experience in 1940s broadcasting. A comment on this situation, Richards’s writing—as interpreted by Horne—raises the question whether Horne’s outspoken character could truly be the heroine of “You Were Wonderful.”
Talking in the see-if-I-care twang of a 1930s gang moll, Lorna is becoming increasingly suspect, so that the questionable defense of her apparently selfish behavior serves to render her positively un-American. When told that her command performances are shortwaved to a German submarine and contain a hidden code to ready Nazis for an attack on American ships, she claims to have known this all along.
The conclusion of the play discloses the singer’s selfishness to have been an act. Risking her life, Lorna Dean defies instructions and, deliberately switching tunes, proudly performs “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” instead.
About to be shot for her insubordination, Lorna is rescued by the patron who questioned her integrity, a man who now reveals himself to be a US undercover agent. When asked why she embarked upon this perilous one-woman mission, the singer declares: “Just to get in my licks at the master race.”
“You Were Wonderful,” which, like many wartime programs was shortwaved to the troops overseas, could thus be read as a vindication of the entertainment industry, an assurance to the GIs that their efforts had the unwavering support of all Americans, and a reminder to minorities, soldiers and civilians alike, that even a democracy marred by inequality and intolerance was preferable to Aryan rule.
Ever since the Detroit race riots of June 1943, during which police shot and killed seventeen African-Americans, it had become apparent that unconditional servitude from citizens too long disenfranchised could not be taken for granted. With “You Were Wonderful,” Horne was assigned the task of assuring her fellow Negro Americans of a freedom she herself had to wait—and struggle—decades rightfully to enjoy.
Had it not been for this assignment, Lena Horne may never have been given the chance to act in a leading role in one of radio’s most prominent cycles of plays. Yes, “You Were Wonderful,” Lena Horne—and any tribute worthy of you must also be an indictment.
It was a crisp, bright afternoon in April when we visited Trebah Garden, one of the most beautiful spots in all of Cornwall. The sun had come out from behind a curtain of threatening clouds and the air was fragrant with a promissory note of summer that even the leafless, wintry trees in the distance were powerless to gainsay. As we walked down the sloping path, past the Rhododendron and Magnolias, beyond the dell of young Gunnera plants that, in time, would grow into a subtropical jungle, we reached a gate that led to a secluded beach. The sea was calm, peaceful the prospect; and even though the name of Trebah had been recorded in the Domesday Book, I felt far removed from the affairs of the world, present and past, as if sheltered in a reserve beyond the reach of history.
When I turned back toward the gate, that sense of detachment was shattered in an instant. I was reminded just how connected I was, even here, with the history of the world. I was yanked out of this perceived Eden by no uncertain notice of our fall: a sign telling me that, from it this secluded spot, thousands went into battle to secure the peace that I had enjoyed.
The memorial at Trebah tells of the 175th Combat Team of the 29th US Infantry Division, some 7,500 strong. On the 1st of June in 1944, those men embarked from that very beach to take part in the D-Day landings and, by carrying out their duty, face all but certain death.
“This is the hour,” Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in her “Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army,” recited by Ronald Colman during a special radio broadcast on D-Day,
this is the appointed time.
The sound of the clock falls awful on our ears,
And the sound of the bells, their metal clang and chime,
For those about to die.
For we know well they will not all come home, to lie
In summer on the beaches.
And yet weep not, you mothers of young men, their wives,
Their sweethearts, all who love them well—
Fear not the tolling of the solemn bell:
It does not prophesy,
And it cannot foretell;
It only can record;
And it records today the passing of a most uncivil age,
Which had its elegance but lived too well,
And far, o, far too long;
And which, on History’s page,
Will be found guilty of injustice and grave wrong.
At Trebah Garden, where a Military Day is still being held each year, I was found guilty of the “grave wrong” it is to be walking in the splendor of oblivion. I shall not soon forget that sudden admonishment, that unsought clash by day.
“Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army” (6 June 1944
Historically speaking, it is difficult for me to get the larger picture. When I express anything amounting to a weltanschauung, I go all philosophical. Perhaps, I live too much in the confines of my own peculiar everyday to engage with the political events and developments that shape my existence. Life in the United States has taught—or, at any rate, encouraged—me to live in and for the now, a modus of going about one’s affairs that is more personally rewarding even though it might not always be quite so socially or globally responsible. Seizing the day for the sake of that day and its glories alone is not something to which Germans, in particular, are prone; they are more likely to seize opportunities for the future, or another country, for that matter.
In the old world, people tend to plan for what might happen in generations to come; they are anxious to map out what they presume to lie ahead, sometimes for as much as a thousand years. I suppose that, once those old world futurists went west to seek their fortune, they needed to learn to reconcile themselves to the vagaries of the wilderness, to fight everyday battles, to carve a niche for themselves right out of those woods.
In societies that have a medieval past in which the individual matters less than the tribe, fascism and communism are more likely to flourish than in the United States. Creating order out of the chaos that is time not yet present so as to provide for the future of one’s kind makes even genocide justifiable.
I wonder whether, had I been born American and grown up the in United States during the 1930s, I had possessed the foresight to anticipate just what this kind of mindset is capable of undoing and getting done. Would I have been an isolationist or urged for an involvement in the European conflict? Would I have been all peacetime business as usual or seen war as a way of insuring the future of an ideal?
I trust that, for all my shortsightedness, I would have seen right through a man like Father Charles Coughlin, who, back in 1939, continued to rail against the warmongers in the US. Using the microphone and Social Justice magazine as means of reaching the American multitudes, he went so far as to recruit school children for his cause. On 19 March 1939, the notoriously anti-semitic priest offered prizes to any youngster—Christian, Jew, or gentile—who could best express reasons to stay out of a foreign “entanglement” involving military action. One answer suggested by the announcer of Coughlin’s radio addresses, who was also a spokesperson for Social Justice, hailed economic sanctions as a modern mode of warfare.
In 1936, Father Coughlin could still count on a popular magazine like Radio Guide as a forum to pose a challenge to “Franklin Doublecross Roosevelt,” the President he had staunchly supported some six years earlier. By 1940, Coughlin’s influence was vastly diminished, his motives questioned, his hypocrisy exposed. In an issue of Radio-Movie Guide for the week of 16 to 22 March 1940, news editor and radio historian Francis Chase, Jr. shared the outcome of his investigation into Coughlin’s mysterious absence from the airwaves on 4 February of that year when a “series of cryptic and intriguing announcements” informed the listening public that Coughlin “would not appear to speak and intimated that dire and sinister forces were at work to prevent his addressing the radio audience.” Chase’s subsequent
investigations showed that neither [station] WJR nor the Coughlin radio network had censored Coughlin’s address. Neither had the Catholic Church nor the Federal Communications Commission. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn, therefore, is that Father Coughlin, and Father Coughlin alone—was responsible for the weird performance after exhorting, through his announcer, all listeners-in to telephone their friends and get them to their loudspeakers.
Apparently, Coughlin was determined to present himself as a martyr threatened to have his tongue cut off by those who did not like what he had to say. Among those who very much liked what Coughlin said—and who liked what his staged disappearance from the airways might imply—where the editors of Hitler’s Völkischer Beobachter, who sneered that, in a so-called free America, Coughlin was facing censorship for the “truths” he dared to speak.
Was Coughlin, who envisioned a fascist “Corporate State” to do away with what he argued to be a corrupt United States, consumed with the larger picture in a foreign frame? Or was he, Canadian-born and barred from the Presidency, picturing mainly himself in whatever frame suited him best or was most likely to accommodate him?
However far-reaching or far-fetched his scheming, much of what the far-righteous Father espoused Chase demonstrated to be personally motivated. When Coughlin denounced the worshipping of the “God of Gold,” for instance, and argued it a “Christian concern” to restore silver to “its proper value,” the US government disclosed that the Thunderer of Royal Oak owned “more silver than any other person in Michigan.” While loudly condemning “Wall Street gambling,” Coughlin was known to have played the stock market.
Sure, even the larger picture—a vision, however ghastly or inhumane—is only a reflection of the minds that conceive it; but in how far are the likes of me, whose frame of mind is too narrow or too feeble to get hold of that larger picture, content to be framed by the masterminds who seize the opportunity of creating, mounting and authenticating it?
This is a day for disguises, and a night of unmasking. A time to let yourself go, and a time to let go of something. A night to make an ass of yourself, and a morning to mark yourself with ash. Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fastnacht. Back where I come from—Germany’s Rhineland—carnival is a major holiday, an interlude set aside for delusions, for letting powerless misrule themselves: laborers parading in the streets without demanding higher wages, farmers nominating mock kings and drag queens to preside over their revels; women storming the houses of local government to perform the ritual of emasculation by cutting off the ties that hang from the necks of the ruling sex. It is a riotous spectacle designed to preserve what is; a staged and sanctioned ersatz rebellion that exhausts itself in hangovers.
Sometimes, the disillusionment creeps up on you only gradually. Upon reflection, that wondrous “what if” begins to sound more like sobering “as if!” You may have had a good time—but, when it comes right down to it, you’ve been had.
As a political instrument, the radio is not unlike Mardi Gras. Tuning in after a day’s work is a carnivalesque experience—the partaking of a communal pancake made from the eggs with which you didn’t dare to pelt those who own most of the chicken. It is the allotted substitute for the half-forgotten voice that those content to listen tend to deny themselves. Broadcasting was, after all, an industry in the service of keeping things as they are or as they ought to be—according to those who operate (within) it.
Radio’s most prominent voices belonged to the fools and the tricksters—Ed Wynn, Baron Munchausen, and the irreverent, imaginary Charlie McCarthy; but during the lean years of depression and war, a period when the medium was at its most influential, radio also coaxed listeners into making sacrifices by driving home their frugality or fortitude could make a difference. One such Atwater-Lent offering was “The Women Stayed at Home,” first heard on this day, 24 February, in 1940. It was written by Arch Oboler, the medium’s foremost melodramatist. If one contemporary source is to be believed, Oboler penned more than four hundred plays between 1935 and 1940 alone. The bulk of his output may be classified either as schlock or as propaganda; except that much of his work is not either, it is both.
There is jolly little cheer in “The Women Stayed at Home,” starring Norma Shearer, whose 1939 screen success The Women may well have suggested the title. Not that, aside from the performer and the spurious message of female empowerment, there are any similarities between those two vehicles. The opening scene of the latter is the “wind-wept” coast of an unspecified country.
It is night. For once the sea is calm. It waits ominously upon the edge offshore where sits a woman and an old man. For a long time they have sat quietly, but now woman speaks to the old man, and her words lift out to the sea on the rush of the wind. . . .
The woman is Celia. The old man is one of us—a listener. Shortly after her wedding, Celia’s fisherman husband perishes at sea. When war breaks out, she feels that she has nothing for which to live or fight. Being refused a chance to be of use to the community, she decides to drown herself. In the attempt, she happens upon a body in the water, the body of a man yet living—a “man from an enemy boat.” Torn between her civic duty and her moral responsibility, Celia decides to be a nurse to Carl, the German stranger whose needs and gratitude imbue her with a sense of purpose that gradually turns into love. Aware of having placed Celia in a precarious position, Carl disappears; but Celia, no longer lonely, is convinced that he will return to her one day.
There was a market for such sentiment prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the isolationist lobby was still strong and outspoken responses to fascism were rarely heard on the air. In 1942, when the play was published, Oboler tried to justify its inclusion in This Freedom by arguing that “after a while, you find yourself hating too much”—a justification clearly tagged on since, back in 1940, even a prominent writer like Oboler could not get away with overtly opposing the policy of neutrality by inciting anger and directing it toward a foreign national target.
When the play was revived almost exactly four years later, in February 1944, the situation had long changed and the playwright was quick to adjust the message to suit the occasion that was Everything for the Boys, a variety program for American servicemen. Oboler had turned into a staunch advocate of hatred. That is, he argued it to be more effective to make Americans hate the enemy than love their own country. It was hate that got things done.
The pseudo-pacifist “Women,” now headed by Mercedes McCambridge, became a patriotic morale booster set in Norway under German occupation. The stranger washed ashore is now a British flyer (played by Ronald Colman). Celia’s dilemma: whether to hide the man or nurse him back to fighting form. After he is gone, a newly invigorated Celia declares:
I like to think that he knows I’m fighting now, too. For the good people. Some day the fighting will be over. It must end. He’ll come back to me. I’ll never be lonely any more.
“The Women Stayed at Home” is clearly of the ready-mix, on demand variety; but it takes a comparative taste test to expose both versions as sham. Real conflict is reduced to melodramatic opportunity; genuine emotion whipped up to achieve whatever was expedient. Sure, there was a time to love and a time to hate—and Arch Oboler had just the words to paint the sign of the times in whatever color suited the mood.
When anti-war laments were popular, Oboler taught them be mindful of how Johnny Got His Gun and what good it did him. He introduced Americans to a “Steel” worker ashamed of being in the service of making war. “The Women Stayed at Home” betrays the opportunist who knew how to keep the pot boiling, a trader in sentiment who did not hesitate to discard supposedly outmoded principles like so many rotten eggs.
Whatever you give up for Lent, keep your integrity.
”The Women Stayed at Home,” Everyman’s Theater (24 Feb. 1940)
“The Women Stayed at Home,” Everything for the Boys (22 February 1944)
“Senseless: One Soldier’s Fight to Speak Against War” (on Oboler’s adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun)
“Bette Davis Gives Birth to Arch Oboler’s ‘American’”
“‘. . . originally written for Bette Davis’: Arch Oboler’s ‘Alter Ego’”
“Hollywood Star Kay Francis Makes Paralysis Sound Like Paradise”
“Mercedes McCambridge, Airwaves Advocate”
Lying in bed last night, I was troubled by the sensation that, should I fall asleep, I might never wake again. I thought of what I would leave behind, and the catalogue of my accomplishments was so short that I was forced to change the subject for want of material. It was a rare moment of anxiety brought on by the dizzying headache that, I presume, is one symptom of a five-week-old cold I cannot seem to shake. I wonder how many folks, even in the best of health, had that feeling back in December 1941 when, instead of mind’s eyeing the seasonal shop windows, they were confronted with the likelihood that their world was coming to an end.
The raid on Pearl Harbor on this day, 7 December, in 1941, forced many Americans to reexamine their life or, perhaps, examine it for the first time. Wondering about the future and their part in shaping it, civilians no doubt asked of themselves what, if anything, they might be able to contribute, although we should not rule out that some were busy conceiving ways of avoiding any such contributions. I well recall that feeling of utter worthlessness during the days following the attack on the World Trade Center, when I dutifully took the train (or the bus, or whatever mode of transportation would run) up to the Bronx to teach college students not to split their infinitives or dangle their modifiers. In light of the deadly strike and the uncertainties ahead, making my mark in red ink struck me as petty and pointless. The most troubling sight, the most nauseating response was anything suggesting “business as usual.” It was not so much reassuring as offensive, this make-believe of “life goes on.”
In his radio address to the people of New York, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, known as the Little Flower, still had to bring home that business in the city was going to be far from usual. Being that the city itself had not come under attack and there were no immediately signs of violent change, many of those tuning in to WNYC had to be reminded of the urgency of the situation and its possible effects on a city thousands of miles from either Hawaii or Europe.
“I want to warn the people of this city that we are in an extreme crisis,” La Guardia addressed the public.
Anyone familiar with world conditions will know that the Nazi government is masterminding Japanese policy and the action taken by the Japanese government this afternoon. It was carrying out the now known Nazi technique of murder by surprise. So there is no doubt that the thugs and gangsters now controlling the Nazi government are responsible and have guided the Japanese government in the attack on American territory and the attack on the Philippine Islands.
Therefore, I want to warn the people of this city and on the Atlantic coast that we must not and cannot feel secure or assured because we are on the Atlantic coast and the activities of this afternoon have taken place in the Pacific. We must be prepared for anything at any time.
While ordering “all Japanese subjects to remain in their homes until their status [was] determined by [the] federal government,” La Guardia urged citizens to be “calm,” arguing that there was “no need of being excited or unduly alarmed.”
Listening to such historical recordings, I imagine myself in the moment, imagine the bewilderment of those who had stayed out of world politics, the irritation of those to whom such a disruption of the holiday season meant inconvenience or financial loss, the immigrant who would be subjected to the suspicion and the hatred of their neighbors. Perhaps it is my own sense of historical insignificance that makes it possible for me to imagine what it was like to wake up on the morning of Monday, 8 December 1941, of feeling the burden of living, and of taking on the challenge of translating such an onus into a chance to matter, if only for a little while—to be prepared for death as well as life.
“To begin at the beginning.” Thus opens what is undoubtedly the most famous of all plays written for radio: Under Milk Wood, by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. BBC radio first produced the play in January 1954, with fellow Welshman Richard Burton in the role of the narrator. It had been previously performed in New York, shortly before Thomas’s death in November 1953 (which is the subject of a new book, Fatal Neglect by David N. Thomas, whose previous biography was the source for the motion picture The Edge of Love. Thomas’s poetry is still widely read today; but little is known generally about his other works for the wireless, about which there is generally little talk these days.
Thomas’s most popular story, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (published posthumously in 1955) was originally written for radio, as may be deduced from the attention Thomas’s pays to descriptions of sounds and voices, from the “most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow” to that “small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time,” a “small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole.”
Indeed, as I learned from Douglas Cleverdon’s Introduction to the Folio edition of Under Milk Wood, Thomas had been on the air, whether as poet, critic, or actor, since 1939. Among his broadcast features is “Return Journey” (1947), a precursor to “Mad Town” (as Under Milk Wood was initially titled); it has been published in the anthology Wales on the Wireless (1988). Earlier this year, another play for voices by Dylan Thomas has been discovered and is now being given its first production on the air. Titled “The Art of Conversation,” it is available online until 9 December.
The title is somewhat misleading, since the play is really about shutting up. It is a Second World War propaganda piece, commissioned as part of a “Loose Lips Sink Ships” campaign, the sort of cautionary talk on the virtue of silence exemplified in the US by mystery writer Mignon Eberhart’s “The Enemy Is Listening” (Cavalcade of America, 7 June 1943). In it, a sinister voice (Everett Sloane’s) replies to remark that no “real American intends to give information to the enemy,” that
sometimes, sometimes someone forgets. A word overheard and repeated. A small fact passed on to someone else may mean little to you. It may mean nothing to the person to whom you repeat it. But the third or the fourth person or the tenth or the twentieth may be your enemy. Your enemy.
Thomas’s “The Art of Conversation” is a rather more subtle performance. It permits us to indulge in the excesses of talk by Britain’s most celebrated conversationalists, only to remind us that there are times when—and subjects about which—the word should be “mum.” “I don’t think you’ll find Mr. Hitler with a little notebook under our table, do you?” one careless talker quips; but, just to be on the safe side, the idle talk that ensures is being censored.
Like Eberhart, Thomas weaves a web of compromising voices; yet he dispenses with melodrama and, indeed, as is typical of his compositions, with plot altogether. Instead, he opts for an informal lecture (replete with audience) punctuated by “the lantern slides of sound”: a multitude of voices, some distinct, others choric. All are preliminaries and subject to shushing:
Hundreds of odds and ends of hundreds of hearsays and rumours may, and can, be brought together into such a pattern that a whole Allied enterprise is thwarted or destroyed. A wagging tongue may sink a ship; a stray word over a mild-and-bitter may help to murder children.
However chatty and playful, “The Art of Conversation” eventually gets down to business and brings its message across; at least, it might have done, had it not disappeared for decades—apparently before it was ever broadcast. According to the current issue of the Radio Times, there is no evidence that the play was intended for radio; but you need only to listen to know that it could have hardly been written with any other medium in mind.
Alison Hindell’s belated production slightly condenses the original script (available here in its entirety), but otherwise takes few liberties with Thomas’s prose and directions; a 1920s “nigger” is turned into “negro,” a concession to our politically corrected sensibilities. Few US radio dramatists were treated with such respect.
The single exception is the rather pointless addition of an opening line that is not part of Thomas’s “Art,” but the famous introduction to Under Milk Wood, quoted above. No doubt, the presenters intended to draw the famous poet into his forgotten “Conversation,” so as to validate this lesser performance; but, instead of indulging in such self-conscious reverberations, they should have left themselves out of it, especially since there is enough of Thomas in it to make the lecture worth our while.
If only a discovery like this could get us talking again about radio . . .