Immaterial Is the Word for It

“Etherized Victorians,” my doctoral study on American radio plays, had been lying for years in a virtual drawer.  A string of rejection letters made me leave it for dead.  Then, when I learned about an opportunity to get it out of that coma at last – from a reputable academic publisher to boot – I went for it.  I have regretted that decision ever since.  The anger welled up in me anew when I read this article in the Guardian, which a colleague of mine had shared via Facebook.
A toothy smile after years of anger and disappointment
It is not that I believe that should have let the book lie, that it did not deserve to be revived.  Rather, I feel it deserved a better home than the publisher provided for it.  Funeral home is more like it.  To send it there, I agreed to pay £1600 for the production of a book that contains no images, except for the cover art that was supplied to me by my artist friend Maria Hayes.  Besides, I did all the editing, proofreading and indexing myself.  I got no input from the publishers, Peter Lang, other than a list of instructions and some rather irritating feedback on my blurb for the back of the book, which was only printed as a paperback.

Turning “Etherized Victorians” into Immaterial Culture meant cutting back and stripping bare. It was an instructive experience, painful though it was.  I renegotiated but was nonetheless obliged to cut about 50,000 words, and I rue the quick decision to get rid of an entire chapter (available online, on my website). I also had to let go of the list of primary sources, the plays I discussed.  When I asked for corrections of errors or inaccuracies I spotted close to the deadline, I was first told that no further changes were possible and then threatened with a £30 per hour editing fee.  So much for academic standards.


Peter Lang did nothing, apparently, to promote the Immaterial Culture.  Living up to its new name, my study does not even show up on Google books.  I got my ‘complimentary’ copies, some of which I sent to a friend with connections to the BBC.  Nothing came of that.  I also walked one copy up to the theater, film and television department of Aberystwyth University, where I work for next to no pay, thinking I might give a lecture or make a course out of it.  I have not heard from the department since.

And who else besides a library or an institution of higher learning would bother to purchase a text that is overpriced at £ 52.00 ($ 84.95), thus too expensive to attract radio drama aficionados? Not that anyone potentially interested would have even heard of the book.  Apart from one long and highly complimentary review (in German), Immaterial Culture received no press, despite my filling out a great number of forms to aid in its promotion.

It is disappointing – let’s make that ‘pointless’–  to write for an audience that proves allusive and impossible to reach.  So, I decided to donate a copy of the book to the Paley Center for Media in New York City, where I conducted research for it.  It would be rewarding and reassuring to me if someone got use or pleasure out of it.  Why else ‘publish’? Never again will I let a publisher like Peter Lang kill one of my books; and, unless to show support for anyone in a situation similar to mine, I would never purchase any of their books or recommend them to fellow educators.

Immaterial Me

My study Immaterial Culture: Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929-1954 has just been published.  So, as well as explaining the subject matter of the book and the objectives of its writer, I decided to devote a few journal entries to the story behind its production, to its birth and life in relation to my own journey.  There is also the small matter of its afterlife, a matter to which no parent, proud or otherwise, can be entirely indifferent.
Along with my other recent publications and current projects, of which I have said nothing in this journal, Immaterial Culture has long kept me from materializing here.  No doubt, I could have made more effective use of broadcastellan as a promotional vehicle.  And yet, writing, like listening to radio plays, is a solitary experience; at least it is so for me.
Like the performers behind the microphone, writers are generally removed from the audience for whom their performance is presumably intended, an audience that often seems so abstract as to be no more than a construct.  The writer, script reader and listener may be sitting in a crowded room, and that crowd may well matter; but what matters more is the immateriality of the words once they are read or spoken.  Words that create images or match stored ones.  Words that evoke and awake feelings, stimulate thought.  Words that, uttered though they are to the multitude, begin to matter personally and take on a multitude of new lives.
That Immaterial Culture is a profoundly personal book will not be readily apparent to anyone reading it.  After all, I have refrained from using the first person singular to refer to myself as the reader or interpreter of the plays I discuss.  I thought I’d leave the privilege to say “I” to that “obedient servant” of the Mercury Theatre, the orotund Orson Welles.  Instead, I decided to disappear and let the play scripts and productions I audition take center stage, a prominent position they are often denied.  Talking about old radio plays as if they have no presence, as if they are chiefly of interest to the (broadcast) historian, only makes matters worse.

Immaterial Culture, then, is an invitation to listen along, an invitation to talk about American radio plays of the past as one still discusses the material culture of books, motion pictures, theater, and television programs …

Difficult as Pie: A Priestley Postscript

Cover of Postscripts (1940) by J. B. Priestley
I have never heard J. B. Priestley deliver his famous Postscripts, a series of morale-boosting talks broadcast to the British public during those early, uncertain and hence no doubt most terrifying days of the Second World War.  Many decades later, actor Patrick Stewart returned Priestley’s lines to the airwaves that had once carried them into the homes of millions; but somehow I could not get excited about those recreations.  For, no matter how delayed an originally live broadcast, its recording yet retains the immediacy of a first-hand experience that no re-enactment can approach.

Recently, I came across the published Postscripts(1940).  Unlike Stewart’s voiceovers, the printed speeches are unabridged and, their author insists, “exactly as they were, without a speck of retouching.”  These are “wireless talks and not essays,” Priestley cautions the reader:

If I had my way they would never have re-appeared in this form, to be examined at leisure instead of being caught on the wing every Sunday at nine-fifteen, but the requests for a volume of them have come in so thick and fast during these last three months, that I felt it would be churlish to refuse.  So here they are, and please don’t blame them now, for they have already done the work they were intended to do.

Indeed, reading those scripts aloud now, I can, even in my own indifferent, untrained voice, hear them doing their work.  Priestley indulges in none of the hysterics and hyperboles that so often render alienating what is meant to be persuasive speech.  They are sentimental, these talks, and they are sane. 

As Priestley puts it in the Preface, the

tricks of the writing trade and some fortunate accidents of voice and manner are all very well, but what really holds the attention of most decent folk is a genuine sharing of feelings and views on the part of the broadcaster.  He must talk as if he were among serious friends….

Priestley’s Postscripts are simply words of encouragement, gentle reminders that much of our seemingly inconsequential everyday is worth holding on to as it defines who we are, that the loss of even the slightest thing may be keenly felt as a threat to our identity.  Take a piece of pie, for instance—and make it a fake one.

That is just what Priestley did, on this day, 29 September, in 1940, when he talked about returning home to Bradford, the “solid real place” of his childhood.  The seemingly random devastation caused by a recent air raid, though far less grand in scale than the attacks on London, “made a far deeper impression” on Priestley “because it somehow brought together two entirely different worlds; the safe and shining world of my childhood, and this insecure and lunatic world of to-day.”

The local bakery, too, had suffered during the raid; but there, in the broken, half boarded up window, could still be glimpsed at the giant pie that had fascinated Priestley when, as a child, he saw emanating from it a steady flow of “fine rich appetising steam.”  A wondrous, awe-inspiring sight it was to Priestley, the boy—and a wonder it was now to Priestley, the man, that, after all those years and after all those hours of bombing, the pie was still in its place, still in one piece, and still steaming away.

Mindful of the prosaic souls who needed to have their lessons spelled out for them, and who may well have resented as this “yapping about . . . pies and nonsense” at a time of acute crisis, Priestley added the reminder to “keep burnished the bright little thread of our common humanity,” a world in which that particular pie had “its own proper place.”

If only we had heard a voice like that during the dark days after 9/11, an opportunity seized by warmongers and profiteers.  If only there had been that sane and gentle voice, the raising of which in a time of terror is as difficult as pie.

Double Hedda: Friel, Ibsen, and the Business of Giving It One’s Best Shot

“I don’t think he’s written a line that’s unnecessary,” Adrian Scarborough remarked about Henrik Ibsen during rehearsals for the latest production of Hedda Gabler at London’s Old Vic, in which Scarborough plays the part of Hedda’s husband.  The endorsement is peculiarly out of place, considering that the Old Vic’s Hedda hardly distinguishes itself by—or even strives for—a line-by-line fidelity to Ibsen’s original.  Rather than a rewording of previous translations, Brian Friel’s “new version” puts a few new words into the mouths of the old, familiar characters created by his fellow playwright, adding a line here and there that left me questioning their necessity.

Now, few theatergoers around the world are in a position to compare Ibsen’s Norwegian to the translation in which they hear those lines performed; and whether a character (in this case Hedda) says “But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new” or “New surroundings take a little getting used to” seems to make little difference.  Are such substitutions worth the bother? What’s more, are they worthy of a playwright like Friel?

“But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new.”  That line can be found in the American-English translation by Rolf Fjelde, who, in an effort of doing “the very best [a translator] can do,” kept “a conscience-file of revision” in hopes of getting the opportunity “Finally [to] Get It Right.”  Fjelde got that chance—and the result seems not particularly in need of further emendation.  Playwright Friel, though, is not about to offer his services as a mute transcriber whose job is to interpret without drawing attention to the interpreter and the challenges or impossibilities of arriving at any one definitive text in a given or taken language.  Friel does not claim his English version to be the last word—and, rather than having us take his word for it being faithful, wants to have a word with us about it.

To do so, Friel inserts hints of himself into the action, which, aside from Hedda’s quest to destroy, quite literally, the text of patriarchy, involves the contest between two published writers, both western and male.  Most overtly, he does this by taking liberties with the lines spoken by the middle-aged Judge Brack who, in Friel’s version, confounds his listeners with Americanisms like “making whoopee” and provides a running commentary on the currency and lifespan of written and spoken language.  “Philadelphia, there you go!” Friel seems to say to Fjelde, suggesting that Broadway and the West End may well require or at least warrant alternate versions of Ibsen and arguing that neither variant of English can or should be considered transcontinental, let alone universal.

Unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us that we are in Norway, having characters drop names of places or remarking on the quality of “Norwegian air.”  Yet, also unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us, by foregrounding the novelty or datedness of words and debating their suitability, that we are not in any particular, definitive place at all but that we are instead in the contested, dangerous territory of language.  It is a territory that Hedda seems to control for a while with her probing questions and scathing remarks but that nonetheless delimits and ultimately overmasters her.

As scholar Anthony Roche puts it, Friel demonstrates himself to be “concerned with updating the constantly changing English language that will always require new adaptations of Ibsen, while making subtle additions that perhaps deepen our understanding of the rich emotional lives of the characters.”  Friel’s Hedda is almost as much about Ibsen’s characters as it is about the act of reading them … and of interpreting Ibsen.  It is a self-conscious take on the act of taking on a classic that, in its reflexivity borders on the by now rather tiresomely postmodern.  Give it your best shot, translator, I felt like responding, and let Hedda get her gun and do the rest.

That Hedda couldn’t quite do her job—and that Friel hadn’t quite done his—became apparent from the laughter in the audience even as Hedda was about to do away with herself in the ingenious glass coffin the Old Vic production had prepared for that purpose.  “This is my first Ibsen,” commented actress Fenella Woolgar (who took on the part of Thea Elvsted), “and I’m discovering that he is a lot funnier than I anticipated.”  Perhaps, that’s because this ain’t quite Ibsen and because Friel isn’t quite the Ibsen-minded processor anyone expecting a traditional Hedda interpretation is likely to expect.

“Translation,” as I said elsewhere (in an essay on the subject) is too mild a word to capture the violent process whereby a text written in one language and time is taken apart and rebuilt in another.  Hedda is a violent play; but given that I find myself preoccupied with the making of this Hedda rather than with the unmaking of its nominally central character, I wonder whether Friel has not inflicted some harm, necessary or otherwise, on Hedda and Hedda alike …

14 Gay Street: NYC, Myself and Eileen

An Argosy find

I had walked past this place many an evening on the way to Ty’s, my favorite Greenwich Village watering hole.  This time, though, it was mid-afternoon and I turned left, leaving Christopher for Gay Street.  I had come here specially to take a picture of number 14, the former residence of two sisters who, for about a quarter of a century or so, were household names across America.  Ruth and Eileen McKenney had been on my mind ever since I saw that production of Wonderful Town on a visit to Manchester, England—and the gals, whose misadventures are tunefully related in said musical, seemed determined to stay there.  On my mind, that is, not up in the Salford docklands; though, judging from their experience way down here on Gay Street, they might not have minded the docks.

A few days earlier, I had happened upon a copy of Ruth McKenney’s All About Eileen (1952) in the basement of the Argosy, one of my favorite antiquarian bookstores in town.  I hadn’t even been looking for it at the time.  In fact, I had been unaware that such an anthology of McKenney’s New Yorkerstories existed.

Eileen was lying there all the same—prominently if carelessly displayed, draped in a flashy, tantalizingly torn jacket that stood out among the drab, worn-out linen coats of a great number of unassuming second-hand Roses about to be put in their place—waiting to be picked up.  I don’t flatter myself.  My company was of no consequence to Eileen.  If I was being lured, it was no doubt owing to an itch Eileen had to get out of yet another basement.


Not straight ahead

Thinking of the case I had to lug to the airport before long—and the less than commodious accommodations that would await Eileen in my study—I had hesitated and walked out alone; but I soon changed my mind, returned to the Argosy, and, to my relief, found Eileen still there, though shifted a little as if to say “I’m not thateasy” and to make me suffer for waffling.

14 Gay Street
And here I was now, a week later.  14 Gay Street.  It’s an unassuming walk-up, next to a scaffolded shell of a building that, a friend told me, had been on fire a while ago.  Walk-up! More like a step-down for Ruth and Eileen. The two had been naïve enough to rent barely-fit-for-living quarters below street level, unaware that the construction of a new subway line was going to rattle their nerves and rob them of what one of their first visitors, a burglar, could not readily bag: their sleep.
“[W]e lived in mortal terror falling into the Christopher Street subway station,” Ruth recalled, making light of her darksome days in their damp “little cave.”

Every time a train roared by, some three feet under our wooden floor, all our dishes rattled, vases swayed gently, and startled guests dropped drinks.

Wisteria on Gay Street
From the outside, at least, 14 Gay Street looked perfectly serene on that quiet, sunny afternoon.  I was not the only one stopping by, though.  I walked up to what I assumed to be a fellow admirer of Eileen’s; as it turned out, he was oblivious that the very spot had given rise to such lore as was retold on page, screen and stage.  He only had eyes for the wisteria that had taken its chances—and its time—to sidle up to and ravage a neighboring property.
Imposing as that looked, I had my heart set on those small dark windows peering from behind the pavement like a pair of Kilroy peepers.  Eileen was here, I thought, and was glad to have seen what seemed too little to look at.  Indifference, after all, is in the passerby’s eye.
I wonder now: How many sites of the city—fabled but forsaken—are daily escaping the sightseer’s gaze?

Of Two Minds: Can The Best Man Win?

Anyone who has as much respect and appreciation for the niceties of the English language as Gore Vidal has will realize, if perhaps only after the final curtain has fallen on The Best Man, that the title is not simply ironic but prognostic: the best man, whoever he may be, cannot be declared if the fight and choice is between just two candidates.  The ostensibly “better” one of them might win, but not, grammatically speaking, the “best.”  Now, the man whom Vidal favors—and expects the audience of his political comedy The Best Man to root for in the play’s fictional contest for Presidential nomination—is not just a man of his word, he is a man who uses each word properly.  The political banter is no mere wordplay: in The Best Man, grammar and morals are one.

Like any wit, Vidal’s central character, William Russell, takes language seriously.  He is not beyond lecturing and flinging the grammar at anyone who doesn’t play by the rules of that book, a volume that the upright man carries in his head.

Russell, proper right down to that noun, is proud to have the last name of a noted philosopher; and, as a thinker, it strikes him as morally wrong to allow others to put words in his mouth.  He would rather write his own speeches—“It’s a shameful business, speech by committee,” he declares—but has come to terms with the fact that his busy schedule dictates otherwise.  What he will not brook, though, is ungrammatical speech. “Please tell the writers again that the word ‘alternative’ is always singular.  There is only one alternative per situation.”
In the dramatic situation of The Best Man, “alternative” is clearly the wrong word, just as choosing the supposedly lesser evil is the wrong approach to casting votes.  Like the dilemma of the two-party system, the either-or decision to which the unquestioning responder is restricted calls for something better: the rejection of the supposed choice as spurious and misleadingly restrictive.
“May the best man win!” is the choice platitude of Russell’s opponent, Joseph Cantwell, whose last name, more than the name of Russell, suggests that the playwright cares less about his characters than about the philosophies for which he makes them stand and fall: they are metaphors for what politics can reduce us to when all we care about is making a name for ourselves.  Both Russell and Cantwell are stand-ins for the figures we imagine—hope and fear—politicians to be; beyond that, they aren’t at all.  “A candidate should not mean but be,” the literary playwright has Russell quip; as a character, Russell is not meant to be anything other than the mouthpiece Vidal means him to be in this verbal play of true versus nominal values.
Asked whether he thought that “a president ought to ignore what people want,” Russell replies “If the people want the wrong thing, [. . .] then I think a president should ignore their opinion and try to convince them that his way is the right way.”  How to do right and what is “right” are the questions The Best Man aims at encouraging us to ponder.  Russell answers by taking his opponent by his clichéd expression and extricating himself from the either-or bind that threatens to turn him into a man no better than Cantwell.
Vidal, too, attempts a way out here, a synthesis of satire and sentimentality, cynicism and hopefulness, as he demonstrates Russell to be the “best” man, after all, by proving him to be the better one.  The solution is as noble as it is grammatical—but it is rather too neat and ponderous, especially since the alternative “message” Vidal communicates is more tired than the dirty politics from which he derives a modicum of dramatic tension.
“And if I may bore you with one of my little sermons,” Russell and Vidal tell reporters and audiences early on:

Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics.  The important thing for any government is educating the people about issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.

Who, today, would buy that little nugget of shopworn sentiment?

Few, no doubt, even bother, as they are more likely to have come to sample the wares on display in the latest Broadway production at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.  The cast is headed by two sentimental favorites—Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones—whose presence, however lively, takes some of the bite out of the 1960 play, which now provokes nothing more effectively than nostalgia: a longing for politics that never were.  Like politics, the business of staging a show is too much of a “popularity contest” to rely on a playwright’s words to win us over.  Reading the script now without seeing the assembled personalities—Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, Eric McCormack—before me on that evening in May, I can better appreciate Vidal’s best lines—but, as a play, The Best Man remains ultimately unconvincing.

Sizing up his competition, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope once interrupted one of his narratives by attempting witty remarks about Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, labeling  the latter “Mr. Popular Sentiment” and the former “Dr. Pessimist Anticant.”  With his showdown between “Popular” Cantwell and “Anticant” Russell, Vidal demonstrates that wanting to be both satirical and sentimental means doing justice to neither; the sentiment feels calculated, the wit pointless. In the noble experiment of making dirty politics cleaner, everything comes out rather muddy in the wash.

Time and the Airwaves: Notes on a Priestley Season

Both BBC Radio 4 and 7 are in the thick of a J. B. Priestley festival, a spate of programs ranging from serial dramatizations of early novels (The Good Companions and Bright Day) and adaptations of key plays (Time and the Conways and An Inspector Calls), to readings from his travelogue English Journey and a documentary about the writer’s troubled radio days. Now, I don’t know just what might be the occasion for such a retrospective, since nothing on the calendar coincides with the dates of Priestley’s birth or death. Perhaps, it is the connection with the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk, an event on which Priestley embroidered in June 1941 for one of his Postscript broadcasts, that recalled him to the minds of those in charge of BBC radio programming.

Never mind the wherefores and whys. Any chance of catching up with Priestley is welcome, especially when the invitation is extended by way of the wireless, the means and medium by which his voice and words reached vast audiences during the 1930s and early 1940s, both in the United Kingdom and the United States.

For all his experience as a broadcaster, though, Priestley, who was not so highbrow as to high-hat the mass market of motion pictures, never explored radio as a playwright’s medium, as a potential everyman’s theater on whose boards to try his combined radiogenic skills of novelist, dramatist, and essayist for the purpose of constructing the kind of aural plays that are radio’s most significant contribution to twentieth-century literature—the plays of ideas.

Priestley prominently installed a wireless set in Dangerous Corner, a stage thriller whose characters gather to listen to a thriller broadcast. Later, he read his controversial wartime commentaries (titled Postscripts) to a vast radio audience. He even went on one of Rudy Vallee’s variety programs to discuss the fourth dimension. Yet the medium that relied entirely on that dimension, to the contemplation of which he devoted many of his stage plays—Time and the Conways and I Have Been Here Before among them—did not intrigue Priestley to make time and create plays especially for the air.

To be sure, his falling out with the BBC in 1941 (as outlined in Martin Wainwright’s radio documentary about the Postscript broadcasts) did little to foster Priestley’s appreciation of the radiodramatic arts. Yet the indifference is apparent long before his relationship with Auntie soured. When interviewed for the 1 September 1939 issue of the Radio Times about his novel Let the People Sing, which was to be read serially on the BBC before it appeared in print, Priestley dismissed the idea that he had written it with broadcasting in mind:

I realised, of course, that the theme must appeal to the big majority. But apart from that, I thought it better to let myself go and leave the BBC to make it into twelve radio episodes. It would otherwise have cramped my style.

To Priestley, the “experiment” of broadcasting his novel lay in the marketing “gamble” of making it publicly available prior to publication, a challenge of turning publishing conventions upside down by effectively turning the printed book into a sort of postscript. Clearly, he looked upon radio a means of distribution rather than a medium of artistic expression.

Reading I Have Been Here Before and listening to the radio adaptation of Time and the Conways, I realized now little either is suited to the time art of aural play. Whereas the Hörspiel or audio play invites the utter disregard for the dramatic unities of time and space, Priestley relied on the latter to make time visible or apparent for us on the stage.

The Conways, like the characters of Dangerous Corner before them, are brought before us in two temporal versions, a contrast designed to explore how destinies depend on single moments in time—moments in which an utterance or an action brings about change—and how such moments might be recaptured or rewritten to prevent time from being, in Hamlet’s words, “out of joint.”

“Time’s only a dream,” Alan Conway insists. “Time doesn’t destroy anything. It merely moves us on—in this life—from one peep-hole to the next.” Our past selves are “real and existing. We’re seeing another bit of the view—a bad bit, if you like—but the whole landscape’s still there.”

In Priestley’s plays, it is the scenery, the landscape of stagecraft, that remains there, “whole” and virtually unchanged. The unity of space is adhered to so as to show up changes in attitudes and relationships and to maintain cohesion in the absence or disruption of continuity. In radio’s lyrical time plays, by comparison, neither time nor place need be of any moment. It is the moment alone that matters on the air, an urgency that Priestley, the essayist and wartime commentator, must surely have sensed. Priestley, the novelist and playwright did or could not. Too few ever did. To this day, a whole aural landscape is biding its time . . .

“. . . there must come a special understanding”: To Corwin at 100

Today, American journalist and radio playwright Norman Corwin turns 100. Whether that makes him the oldest living writer to have had a career in radio I leave it to fact-checkers and record book keepers to determine. I do know that, seventy years ago, he was already the best. Oldest. Best. Why not dispense with superlatives? Corwin has been set apart for too long. Instead, an appreciation of his work calls for the positive and the comparative, as his plays deserve to be regarded at last alongside the prose and poetry of his better-known literary contemporaries.

No survey of 20th-century American literature can be deemed representative, let alone definitive, without the inclusion of some of Corwin’s Whitmanesque performances. What has kept him from being ranked among the relevant and influential writers of the 1940s, and of the war years in particular, is the fact that, during those years, Corwin wrote chiefly for a medium that, however relevant and influential, was—and continues to be—treated like a ghetto of the arts in America.

You might argue that the metaphor is not altogether apt, especially if you bear in mind the distinguished authors and playwrights who did turn to—or agreed to be pulled into—broadcasting during the Second World War; among them poets Archibald MacLeish, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Stephen Vincent Benét, as well as dramatists like Maxwell Anderson, Marc Connelly, and Sherwood Anderson. And yet, even their scripts are rarely acknowledged to be contributions to literature, the American airwaves being thought of as a cultural site quite beyond that field.

At best, dramatic writings for radio are handled as historical documents that, by virtue of being propagandist or populist, could hardly be regarded as having artistic merit or integrity. As something other—and less—than literature, they were as quickly obliterated as they were produced, stricken from the records so as not to tarnish the reputation of erstwhile writer-recruits most of whom exited the radio camp well before V-J Day.

Norman Corwin never deserted that camp. Rather, the camp was shut down, raided by McCarthy, all but razed to make way for television. Sporadic returns to the old playing field notwithstanding, he was forced to move on. Yes, the air was—and is—Corwin’s playground. For all their wartimeliness, his 1940s plays were never mere means to an end, even if end is understood to mean an end to the war that gave them a reason for being.

To gain an understanding of that past is not the only good reason for being in the presence of Corwin today. Rather than promoting uniformity, which is a chief aim of propaganda, Corwin’s plays challenge the commonplace, encourage independent thinking and the voicing of ideas thus arrived at. Take “To Tim at Twenty,” for instance. It is hardly one of Corwin’s most complex, ambitious or experimental works for radio; in a note to a fellow writer, published in Norman Corwin’s Letters (1994), the playwright himself described it as “the lowest common denominator of simplicity.” Simplicity, in this case, is an achievement. Quietly startling, “To Tim at Twenty” bespeaks the humanity, intellect, and dignity of its author.

Written for the CBS Forecast series, a string of pilot broadcasts designed to test audience responses to potential new programs, the play first aired on 19 August 1940, when it starred Charles Laughton, for whom “To Tim” was expressly written, and Elsa Lanchester. Newly arrived in California, Corwin was staying at the couple’s Brentwood home at the time.

As he shared in a letter to his sister-in-law, he felt “kind of lonely” in Hollywood, and was “getting tired of singlehood.” In times of war—and to Laughton and Lanchester August 1940 was wartime—the thought of growing up and raising a family is compounded by the realization that the future is darkly uncertain instead of rich in potentialities. So, Mr. Corwin wrote a letter.

To Tim at Twenty is an epistolary play, a radiodramatic genre of partially dramatized speeches addressed to an implied audience. The proxy listener, in this case the unheard Tim, suited Corwin since indirection made whatever was conveyed come across as something other than an act of overt indoctrination. The addressee also provided him with a veil behind which to enact his personal conflicts as he contemplated his maturity, mortality, and legacy.

The letter writer is Tim’s father, a British gunner spending a sleepless night in the “barracks of an RAF squadron on the northeast coast of England”; as the narrator-announcer informs us, he is “leaving at dawn on a mission from which there can be no return.”

Once the United States entered the war, lesser writers, melodramatist Arch Oboler among them, would use this kind of set-up to remind American civilians of the sacrifices made for them overseas, of the bravery that must be honored and matched at the home front. Tim, we expect, is asked to honor his father’s memory. Instead, the letter he is to receive tells him that the men of his father’s generation “haven’t made out any too well” in the business of “the running of the earth.”

At the time the letter is composed, Tim is just five years old. His father made a “special point” of asking his wife “not to deliver” it until 1955, at which time he might have had the “man to man” talk with his son that war denied him.

Sentimental, seemingly pacifist messages were not unheard of at the time. They were welcomed by isolationists who counted on big business as usual—and commercial radio, which shunned the controversial, was very big business indeed; but “To Tim at Twenty” suggests something alien to those determined to preserve the status quo. Instead, the belated address of the Englishmen, who knows better than to have faith in things as they are, is meant to instill his son—and Corwin’s listeners—with a “fuller appreciation of women.” To Marshall, they are authorities of humanity superior to men because “there must come a special understanding of the dignity of life to those who grow it in their vitals.”

As the dramatic flashbacks reveal, the lessons he shares with his son were taught Marshall by his wife, who suggested that the voices of the many might have drowned the shrill cries of the few, the “wanton wills” that were not countered by “man’s vast raw materials of love and tenderness and courage” in time to avoid deadly conflict. “There are several kinds of valor,” Tim is to learn from his dead father, “and the least is the kind that comes out of the hysteria of battle.”

I suspect that it was easier to write this message in 1940 than it was to understand it in 1955, when America’s leader was a five-star general, when superpowered dominance was the manly objective of the day and the “appreciation of women” was more a matter of the male gaze than of political influence or workforce equality. By then, there was no place for Corwin in network radio. Since his climactic “Note of Triumph” in 1945, to which nearly half of the US population was estimated to have tuned in, his voice has been heard by a comparatively few—the fortunate few who, by lending him an ear, are gaining a “special understanding.”

“Because there is always someone left out”: Bennett, Biography, and the Habit [of Framing] Art

I might as well come right out with it, dissentient, fractious and uncharitable as it may sound. I don’t like Alan Bennett—popular British playwright, memoirist, and frequent reciter of his own words—whose latest work for the stage, The Habit of Art, was beamed from London’s National Theatre into movie houses around the world this month. He irritates me. Why, then, did I number among the sizeable crowd this satellite event drew at our local cinema? Truth is, I kind of like that he irritates—unless he does it with the sound of his voice, a querulous whine the exposure to which theater audiences, unlike radio listeners, are generally spared. In The Habit of Art, Bennett does it—that is, doesn’t do it for me—in the way he packages or frames what I think he is trying to capture.

At this stage in his career, Bennett is about as stuffy as an old whoopee cushion. Once in a while, he stands up to lecture, letting his characters—all stand-ins for himself—disseminate lines that stand out not merely by virtue of their brilliance but by the less-than-virtue of being borrowed for the occasion as if they were quotations taken from what could have been the draft of an unpublished essay. Then, sitting down again, he, in his frightfully British way of rendering himself human and opening up to us—and of confusing secrets with secretions—carries on about bodily functions as if he were out to revive the Carry On series. The habit? O, fart!

“That’s Auden farting, not me,” one of Bennett’s characters, Fitz, insists after doing so audibly. Whether caught breaking wind or urinating in the kitchen sink, that’s still W. H. Auden, the distinguished poet, with whose short yet (since?) intimate friendship to composer Benjamin Britten the play is ostensibly concerned. Ostensibly, because Bennett is not about to humor those curious about the private lives of two fellow gay artists, reunited in 1972 to discuss a collaboration that does not come off, by delivering some kind of Sunshine Boys routine. In its roundabout way, The Habit of Art refuses to be about any one thing. It isn’t Auden letting go. It’s an actor portraying him in a rehearsal of a play whose Author, also on the scene, seems unsure about just what it is all about—or at least unable to convince his players.

To say what he needs to say, Bennett’s Author feels compelled to move a biographer into the frame of what he is anxious to preserve as his composition; Bennett does the same in order to explore that frame and explode it. In other words, Bennett is rehearsing his failure—or inability or unwillingness—to restrain himself for the sake of art by acting out passages from his decidedly golden notebook.

A kind of Greek Chorus, the biographer is the Author’s device, just as the sensitive, defensive Author is Bennett’s. That is, the device is similar, but the purpose is different. In Bennett’s play, the unassuming actor assuming the part of the interviewing, interjecting biographer is aware of being a device and resents it. Since his character is based on a real person (radio broadcaster Humphrey Carpenter), the actor wants his role to come across as real even as he is made to walk in and out of Auden’s quarters like the Stage Manager in Our Town. Nothing seems real here aside from Bennett’s artistic struggle.

Although the actor does not have to emit gas to prove his character’s humanity, he—that is, the biographer in spite of his extra-autobiographical self—is confronted with Auden’s request for a sex act the performance of which was the job of the callboy for whom the biographer is briefly mistaken. Enter the callboy proper. He, not Auden or Britten, is the character referred to, albeit obliquely, in the Author’s play Caliban’s Day, the troubled rehearsal into the midst of which we are plonked.

Meanwhile, Fitz, the less than letter-perfect actor set to play Auden, is not amused by this Caliban, nor by Caliban’s Day, a dramatic monstrosity that also features talking furniture (“I am a chair and in New York / I seated his guests and took in their talk”) and an exchange between Auden’s Words and Britten’s Music, performed, in the absence of the two unfortunate thespians assigned those parts, by the jovial Stage Manager and her hapless assistant.

It is through Fitz that Bennett responds to the frustrations of theatergoers eager—if increasingly less so—to get closer to a poet whom, after witnessing this closed-door run-through of what is about to go on public display, it would be nigh on impossible to romanticize as bohemian: “There’s no nobility to him,” Fitz protests, “Where—this is what the audience will be thinking—where is the poetry?”

Not that I was expecting, even from an audiophile like Bennett, any reference to “The Dark Valley,” Auden’s 1940 contribution to The Columbia Workshop. Dramatically underscored by Britten’s music, Auden’s monologue for radio is a collaborative effort that speaks, more directly and poignantly than Bennett, of love, death, and the secrecy that is the death of love:

Under the midnight stone
Love was buried by thieves.
The robbed hearts weep alone.
The damned rustle like leaves.

Taking center stage instead is a professional sex worker. Bennett’s Author does his utmost to justify the callboy’s presence, insisting that his request performance is neither uncalled for nor gratuitous. As the only surviving witness of that fictionalized meeting between Auden and Britten, the young man is recalled from obscurity to tell us what he would want to get out of the exchange if he, a Caliban among Prosperos, were to have his day:

I want to figure. He goes on about stuff being cosy, England and that. But it’s not England that’s cosy. It’s art, literature, him, you, the lot of you. Because there’s always someone left out. You all have a map. I don’t have a map. I don’t even know what I don’t know. I want to get in. I want to join. I want to know.

Neither the Author, whom we are not encouraged to take seriously, nor Bennett, in all his tongue-in-cheekiness, convinces me that the boy truly wants to be in the know; above all, he wants to be known. And, for some reason—a touch of Death in Venice, Habit with its built-in commentary suggests—Bennett lets the youth voice his demands on behalf of all the faceless boys that Britten and Auden may have privately enjoyed while enjoying critical success.

But the boy—played by a self-conscious twenty-nine-year old—does not figure. If anything, he disfigures. He, like anyone who ever catered to Auden’s bodily needs, cleaned his kitchen sink or inspected his carcass, is generally “left out” for a reason. After all, is it really such a revelation that an artist may be rankly human, that, stripped of the artistry for which he is known, he stands before us as homo mephiticus?

Bennett, to borrow a line from myself, is “like a boar chasing Adonis for the sweat on his thighs.” That we are unknowable to each other is old hat. To add that, if we do get to know what others did not mean to share, we might end up with more—or less—than we need to know is hat decomposing.

Bennett means to share, though. He means to share what it means to create, to critique, and collaborate, what it means to be old, what it means to be gay, what it means to be public, to be private, to be popular, to be British, to be human. Now artsy, now fartsy, he means to let it all out, and say, too, how difficult it is to say anything, let alone everything and the kitchen sink. Yet, as Scream 3 drove home back in 2000, postmodern self-reflexivity is as dead as a nail in a mortuary’s door, a door that, if left open, releases nothing but the ptomaine wafting our way when storytelling is permitted to keep turning and feasting on itself.

However breezy this exercise in framing and dismantling may be, nothing quite this undisciplined and self-indulgent can be any longer mistaken for fresh air. It’s just a hard-to-kick habit of art, and a rather bad one at that.

The “crazy coon” and the “highvoiced fag”: Jello and the Language of Revolution

Language is to me one of the main pulls of the no longer popular, be it American radio comedy of the 1940s or the serial novels of the Victorian era. That is to say, the absence of the kind of language we refer to as “language” whenever we caution or implore others to mind theirs. Mind you, all manner of “language” escapes me in moments of physical or mental anguish; but, once I hit the keyboard, whatever hit me or made me hit the roof is being subjected to a process of Wordsworthian revision. You know, “emotion recollected in tranquility.” If the revisions come off, what remains of the anger or hurt that prompted me to write has yet the kind of medium rare severity that renders expressed thought neither raw nor bloodless. No matter how many words have been crossed out, the recollection still gets across whatever made me cross in the first place, and that without my being double-crossed by lexical recklessness.

Writing with restraint is not a matter of adopting certain mannerisms to avoid being plain ill-mannered. Obscurity is hardly preferable to obscenity. The trick is to create worthwhile friction without resorting to diction unworthy of the cause—without using the kind of words that just rub others the wrong way. I was certainly rubbed so when, researching old-time radio, I brushed up on Amiri Baraka’s Jello (1970), no doubt the angriest piece of prose ever to be written about the American comedian Jack Benny (seen here, dressing up as Charley’s Aunt).

Jello was penned at a time when many Americans who grew up listening to Benny retreated into nostalgia rather than face, accept, let alone support the radical cultural changes proposed or, some felt, threatened by the civil rights movement. Baraka confronted this longing for the so-called good old days with a farce in which Benny’s much put upon valet Rochester refuses the services the public had long—and largely unquestioningly—come to expect of the well-loved character.

What ensues is a riot—albeit not one of laughs—as Baraka’s “postuncletom” Rochester lashes out at his former master-employer and insists on forcefully taking the money out of which he believes to have been cheated during the past thirty-five years (according to Baraka’s rewriting of broadcasting history). Having found that “loot” in a bag of Jello, Rochester leaves Benny, Mary Livingstone, and Benny regular Dennis Day to their “horrible lives!”—piled up on the floor like the corpses in a Jacobean revenge tragedy.

The plot of Jello is older than its message—the call to rise against the forces that made, made tame or threaten to unmake us; and the only startling aspect of Baraka’s play is the aggressive tone in which that message is delivered, delivered, to be sure, to none but those already alive and receptive to his rallying call.

“No, Mary,” Baraka’s version of Benny insists, “this is not the script. This is reality. Rochester is some kind of crazy nigger now. He’s changed. He wants everything.” The language alone signals that we are well beyond the grasp of the titular sponsor, beyond the code adopted in the summer of 1939 by the National Association of Broadcasters, according to which “no language of doubtful propriety” was to pass the lips of anyone on the air.

As is the case in all attempts at policing language, the underlying thought—the unsaid yet upheld—might be more dubious still; and when Baraka picks up the word “nigger,” he gives expression to a hostility that could not be voiced but was played out in and reinforced by many of the networks’ offerings. Indefensible, however, is his use of equally virulent language like “stupid little queen” and “highvoiced fag” when referring to tenor Dennis Day or “radio-dikey,” as applied to Mary Livingstone. Staging revolution, Baraka is upstaged by revulsion. He has mistaken the virulent for the virile.

In those days and to such a mind, “fag” was just about the most savage term in which to couch one’s rejection of the unproductive and the non-reproductive alike. It was a monstrous word demonstrative of the fear of emasculation. It is that fear—and that word—with which power and dignity was being stripped from those whose struggle for equality was just beginning during the days following the Stonewall Riots of 28 June 1969, from those whose fight was impeded by a fear greater and deeper even than racism.

Now, I’m no slandered tenor; but I have been affronted long enough by such verbiage to be tossing vitriol into the blogosphere, to be venting my anger or frustration in linguistically puerile acts of retaliation. If I pick up those words from the dust under which they are not quite buried, I do so to fling them back at anyone using them, whether mindlessly or with design—but especially at those who inflict suffering in the fight to end their own. Our protests and protestations would be more persuasive by far if only we paid heed to the words we should strike first.


Related writings
“A Case for Ellery Who?: Detecting Prejudice and Paranoia in the Blogosphere”
“Martin Luther Kingfish?: Langston Hughes, Booker T. Washington, and the Problem of Representation”
“Jack Benny, Urging Americans to Keep Their Wartime Jobs, Catches Rochester Moonlighting in Allen’s Alley”