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”

Tonight at 8:30 (or Whenever It’s Convenient)

“You can’t do without it. Supposing you wanna hear Jack Benny, see? But you can’t be at home at that hour. So you tell the maid to turn the radio on when Jack Benny comes on, and this automatically goes on with the radio. . . .” That is how big shot Howard Wagner goes on about his new wire recorder—shortly before giving his old employee the ax. The employee is Willy Loman, the scene from Death of a Salesman. It is one of the references that came as a surprise to me yesterday morning when I reread the play I thought I was done with by the time I left college. At the time he wrote this Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, Miller had not long gotten out of the radio game and was rejoicing in his newfound artistic freedom; so he gives the speech—and the speech recording device—to the bad guy. Having previously gone on record to dismiss radio as commercial and corrupt, Miller now suggested how the medium was about to get worse—that is, farther removed from live theater, from the immediate, the communal, and the relevant.

This “wonderful machine”—for which Mr. Wagner is ready let go of “all [his] hobbies”—is a metaphor for the selfishness of a society that was moving so fast, it could not even give the time of day to its most beloved entertainers—let alone a tired old man like Willy Loman. If Mr. Benny wanted to talk to Howard Wagner, he, like everyone else, had to wait for the hour appointed to him by the big noise.

“You can come home at twelve o’clock, one o’clock, any time you like, and you get yourself a Coke and sit yourself down, throw the switch, and there’s Jack Benny’s program in the middle of the night!”—all for “only a hundred and a half,” an amount for which Willy Loman is willing to work for three weeks and a half.

For decades to come, it was the industry that benefitted most from this new recording technology. Bing Crosby could walk into the studio when it suited his own schedule, rather than having to be there for the public who sat by the radio, as of old, to hear his program go on the air. Nowadays, the Willy Lomans are in charge of scheduling, of making time for whoever vies for their attention.

I would not go so far as to say that I “can’t do without” the latest recording software. It sure makes it easier for me to enjoy more of what I enjoy, though. The BBC’s iPlayer has greatly changed my listening habits and increased the number of plays, documentaries, and musical selections I take in. Currently, I am listening to “The Better Half,” a cheeky if dated sex comedy by Noel Coward. Written and performed in 1922, the unpublished one-acter about “modern” marriage (in the traditional sense we can’t seem to get past) was not staged again until 2007. Earlier this week, it had its broadcast debut on BBC Radio 4.

Okay, so the leading lady is not Gertrude Lawrence (star of radio’s Revlon Revue back in 1943)—but at least I won’t have to listen to Mr. Wagner’s precious offspring (“Listen to that kid whistle”) while begging for a moment of his time. After all, most of us don’t get the impression that, as Noel Coward puts it in “This is a Changing World” (with which the radio adaptation of “The Better Half” opens), “[t]ime is your tenderest friend.” So, it feels good to push a few buttons and get the better of it . . .

Related recording
“Meet Gertrude Lawrence,” Biography in Sound (23 January 1955)

Cranky Doodle Dandy: George M. Cohan Feels So Free

Jumping Jehosophat! It sure feels good to rant about our elected government—some force that, at times, appears to us (or is conveniently conceived of) as an entity we don’t have much to do with, after the fact or fiction of election, besides the imposition of carrying the burden of enduring it, albeit not without whingeing. Back on this day, 4 May, in 1941, the Columbia Broadcasting System allotted time to remind listeners of the Free Company just what it means to have such a right—the liberty to voice one’s views, the “freedom from police persecution.” The play was “Above Suspicion.” The dramatist was to be the renowned author Sherwood Anderson, who had died a few weeks before completing the script. In lieu of the finished work, The Free Company, for its tenth and final broadcast, presented its version of “Above Suspicion” as a tribute to the author.

Starred on the program, in one of his rare radio broadcasts—and perhaps his only dramatic role on the air—was the legendary George M. Cohan (whose statue in Times Square, New York City, and tomb in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, are pictured here). Cohan, who had portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt in I’d Rather Be Right was playing a character who fondly recalls Grover Cleveland’s second term, but is more to the right when it comes to big government.

The Free Company’s didactic play, set in New York City in the mid-1930s, deals with a complicated family reunion as the German-American wife of one Joe Smith (Cohan) welcomes her teenage nephew, Fritz (natch!), from the old country. Fritz’s American cousin, for one, is excited about the visit. Trudy tells as much to Mary, the young woman her mother hired to prepare for the big day:

Trudy.  Mary, I have a cousin.

MARY.  Yeah, I know, this Fritz.

TRUDY.  Have you a cousin?

MARY.  Sure, ten of ‘em.

TRUDY.  What are they like?

MARY.  All kinds.  One’s a bank cashier and one’s in jail.

TRUDY.  In jail! What did he do?

MARY.  He was a bank cashier, too [. . .].

Make that “executive” and it almost sounds contemporary. In “Above Suspicion,” the American characters are not exactly what the title suggests. That is, they aren’t perfect; yet they are not about to conceal either their past or their positions.

Trudy’s father is critical of the government, much to the perturbation of Fritz, who has been conditioned to obey the State unconditionally:

SMITH.  Jumping Jehosophat [chuckles].  Listen, the State’s got nothing to do with folks’s private affairs.  Nothing.

FRITZ. Please, Uncle Joe, with all respect.  If the State doesn’t control private affairs, how can the State become strong?

SMITH.  Oh, it will become strong, all right.  You know, sorry, it might become too darn strong, I’ll say.  And I also say, let the government mind its own dod-blasted business and I’ll mind mine.

To Fritz, such “radical” talk is “dangerous”; after all, his education is limited to “English, running in gas masks, and the history of [his] country.” He assumes that Mary is a spy and that anyone around him is at risk of persecution. To that, his uncle replies: “Dangerous? Well, I wish it was. The trouble is, nobody pays any attention. By gad, all I hope is that the people wake up before the country is stolen right out from under us, that’s what I hope.”

“Above Suspicion” is a fairly naïve celebration of civil liberties threatened by the ascent of a foreign, hostile nation (rather than by forces from within). Still, it is a worthwhile reminder of what is at stake today. Now that the technology is in place to eavesdrop on private conversations (the British government, most aggressive among the so-called free nations when it comes to spying on the electorate, is set to monitor all online exchanges), we can least afford to be complaisant about any change of government that would exploit the uses of such data to suppress the individual.

“Dictaphones,” Smith laughs off Fritz’s persecution anxieties.

I wish they would some of those dictaphones here.  I’d pay all the expenses to have the records sent right straight to the White House.  That’s what I’d do.  Then they’d know what was going on then.  [laughs]  They’d get some results then, hey, momma?

These days, no one is “Above Suspicion.” Just don’t blame it on Fritz.

“. . . a world between two sounds”; or, the Librarian Who Turned Up the Volume(s)

I could not have faulted anyone for brushing me off with a terse “none of your lip,” considering that my kisser had taken on the appearance of an over-boiled frankfurter abandoned during a picnic invaded by flesh-eating ants. 

Luckily, sights mattered less than sounds, and the painkillers had not entirely divested me of whatever powers of articulating my ideas I yet possess. Yesterday morning, during a meeting with administrators at the local university, interest was once again expressed in a course I had proposed a few years ago. I fancifully called it “Writing for the Ear,” which was meant to distinguish the module from more traditional classes in radio writing as they are still being taught here in Britain. 
I recently turned down an offer to teach a course in writing for the medium, since I have no experience in developing scripts aimed at those in charge of productions at the BBC. Besides, today’s technology makes it possible for anyone to have a voice in the forum, to podcast talks and engage in sonic experimentation. With these opportunities in mind, I outlined a course exploring the relationship between the spoken and the written that would make those who express themselves typographically alive of the value of sounds, the potentialities of silences.
Too much of our finest prose and poetry is being silenced. Words written hundreds of years ago are still being looked at, but they are far less frequently voiced and heard. In classroom and study, printed words are scrutinized, paraphrased, underlined, crossed out, and annotated; they are dissected like so many toads in the imaginary garden, well before they get a chance to let out a single distinctive croak.
Lending your own voice to written lines is an act of resuscitation—of breathing life into the thoughts of those who came before you, of triggering a startling echo in what was assumed to be a soundproof vault. Silences, too, speak volumes, especially when they enter into a dialogue with the spoken and the sounded.
Someone who had a lot to say on the subject of the word made sound was Archibald MacLeish, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet who, from 1939 to 1944 served as Librarian of Congress. Before being appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations, MacLeish brought to radio a series of lectures titled The American Story. At a time of global conflict, the program was designed to emphasize
the experience in common of the American peoples, the story set down in the accounts of those who knew the American experience at first hand or were part of it. Whatever their race may have been, or their faith, or their language.
In other words, it took a scholarly approach to what Carmen Miranda accomplished in the conga line of duty. On this day, 18 March 1944, NBC presented “Between the Silence and the Surf,” the eighth broadcast in the series. It related the settlement of the Americas, from Plymouth (as recorded by William Bradford in the 17th century) to Brazil (as documented by Lopez Vaz in the 1580s). I recently rediscovered the program while digitizing my collection of audio tapes; the published scripts, meanwhile, have been shared online. The printed words bespeak the poet’s mission of giving voice to the lost and long unsounded, to lives shelved and shut away in our repositories of knowledge:

SOUND. A slow surf, the hush of the waves withdrawing.

NARRATOR. And the wind’s sound in the grass or in the brush or in the forests where they still must go.

SOUND. The wind in the coarse grass and the solemn trees.

NARRATOR. The world of the first settlements was the narrow world between the silence and the surf, between the water and the wilderness—between the past cut off by water and the future closed by distance and by danger—but not closed.

According to the April 1944 issue of Radio Age, MacLeish “poured an immense amount of painstaking research,” into this series; and in “addition to the laborious research and authentication,” he included the
most important fillip—his own brilliant style of the prose poem, a style which has won for him the accolades of the literary world. Each line read on the broadcast is a part of this poetic narrative style, giving each program a dramatic sweep so necessary in producing the effect desired
Yet while the poet claimed to have aimed at creating “new forms of radio expression,” rather than adhering to the formats of “conventional radio drama,” critics were not uniformly enthusiastic, arguing the productions to be “overloaded with conversation” and “self-denyingly austere.” Such gainsayings are representative of the bias toward dramatization and dialogue as opposed to lecture or oratory, no matter how many individual speakers were employed to deliver it.
In the foreword to the published scripts for the series, MacLeish defended his minimalist approach by reasoning that “radio’s unique function and unique opportunity” was simply to convey speech instead of presenting words, “artfully blended” by means of “[s]killful devices,” to “produce dramatic effects”:
Because radio is limited mechanically to sound, and particularly to the sound of speech, radio is capable of a concentration of speech itself, the text itself, which can give words a life and a significance they rarely achieve outside the printed pages—and which they achieve there only for the most gifted and fortunate readers.
The word, to MacLeish, was the beginning and the end. As a documentarian and poet, he inhabited that “world between two sounds,” listening, recording, and readying himself to speak with force and deliberation. His American Story is the story of humanity’s struggles for survival, for voice and representation. Our daily existence, like that of the first settlers, is this “narrow world between the silence and the surf,” between the calm and the roar, between tumult and tranquility. Our lives are a string of moments waiting to be seized for having our say, periods of stillness, voluntary or imposed. We may chronicle our times and leave behind piles of documents to be poured over or neglected by future generations; but it is the sound we make now and the space we leave for listening that define the present we must fill with meaning as we rage against the silence to which we are ultimately condemned . . .

Related writings

Re: Boot (A Mental Effort Involving Distant Cousins)

Like many a woebegone youth of my generation—once known as the No Future generation—I entered the crumbling empire of Evelyn Waugh’s fictions by way of that lush, languid serial adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. It wasn’t so much what I saw as what I had missed that made me pick up the book. Owing to my mother’s loyalty to Dynasty, which aired opposite Brideshead on West German television back in the early 1980s, I was obliged to fill whatever holes our weekly appointment with the Carringtons had blasted into Waugh’s plot. Even more circuitous was my subsequent introduction to A Handful of Dust. In keeping with the title—and in poor housekeeping besides—a tatty paperback of it had been cast to steady a wonky table in the community room of a nurse’s residence at the hospital where I carried out such duties as were imposed on me during the mandatory twenty-month stretch of civil service any boy not inclined to be trained for military action was expected to fulfill.

For twenty months, I, who ought to have been eating strawberries with Charles Ryder, served canteen slop and sanitized bedpans at a Cologne hospital. Was there ever a locality less deserving of the name it gave to the art of concealing our stenches, of which Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once “counted two and seventy” in Cologne alone? My head was not held very high during those days, which probably led me to investigate just what propped up that misshapen piece of furniture. For once, though, I had reason to lament being downcast. A Handful of Dust turned out to be a rare find.

Counting the weeks to my release, I could sympathized with its anti-hero, the hapless Tony Last, trapped as he was in the wilds of the Amazon, forced to read the works of Charles Dickens to the one man who could have returned him to civilization but, enjoying his literary escapes, refused to release him—a scenario familiar to regular listeners of thriller anthologies Suspense and Escape.) Like Mr. Last, I had gotten myself in an awful fix—and up a creek that smelled the part.

So, when I think of Evelyn Waugh’s early fictions now, at a time in my life when I can more closely associate with his later Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, what comes to mind is the comparative misery of my youth and the pleasures derived from the incongruities at the heart of his late-1920s and 1930s novels, satires like Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), and Black Mischief (1932). While not inclined to relive those days by revisiting such titles, I could not turn down the chance of another Scoop (1937), the first installment of a two-part adaptation of which is being presented this week by BBC Radio 4.

Ever topical, Scoop is a satire on journalism, war and the money to be made in the Hearstian enterprise of making the news that sells. Finding himself in the midst of it all is William Boot, whose sole contribution to the field of journalism is a “bi-weekly half-column devoted to Nature.” Decidedly not mightier than the sword, his pen produced lines like “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole. . . .” Not the rugged, muscular prose you’d expect from a war correspondent.

It was all a deuced mistake, of course, this business of sending Boot to report on the crisis in Ishmaelia, a “hitherto happy commonwealth” whose Westernized natives no longer “publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop.” The chap who was meant and eager to go among them was William’s namesake, one John Courteney Boot, a fashionable novelist who “kept his name sweet in intellectual circles with unprofitable but modish works on history and travel,” works like “Waste of Time, a studiously modest description of some harrowing months among the Patagonian Indians.”

Absurd situations and wicked caricatures aside, it is Waugh’s prose—the pith of impish phrases like “studiously modest”—that makes a novel like Scoop such a font of literary Schadenfreude. “Amusingly unkind,” the London Times Literary Supplement called it. As it turns out, the joke’s on us once the narration is removed.

Condensing the wild plot in suitably madcap speed, Jeremy Front’s radio adaptation retains little of the narration, sacrificing not only wit but clarity to boot. What is left of the Waugh’s exposition may well lead the listener to believe that John, not William, is the central character. Indeed, like Waugh’s dimwitted Lord Copper, head of the Megalopolitan Newpaper Corporation, listeners are apt to (con)fuse the two.

Unlike Front, Waugh takes great pains to set up the farcical plot, dropping first one Boot, then another, and makes it clear just how the unequal pair are matched:

“The fashionable John Courtney Boot was a remote cousin [of William],” Waugh’s narrator informs us, but they “had never met.” Too eager to get on with the story, Front omits these line, relying solely on the juxtaposition of the two characters, who, during those first few minutes of the play, are little more than names to us.

However bootless the lament, I wish those stepping into the wooden O of radio today would put themselves in the shoes of their listener. Before experimenting with fancy footwork, they should consult a few classics to arrive at the proper balance between dialogue and narration. Otherwise, a potential Scoop can seem like such a Waste of Time—especially to those whose concentration is impaired by plot-obstructive reminiscences . . .

Related recordings
“The Man Who Liked Dickens,” Suspense (9 Oct. 1947)
“The Man Who Liked Dickens,” Escape (21 December 1952)

That “tie of sympathy”; or, Five for the Dardos

“Today, the real humorist is fast disappearing.” The “Today” here is 30 January 1949. The voice is that of satirist Fred Allen, who made the claim when called upon to expound on “The State of American Humor” for the benefit of folks tuning in to NBC’s Living 1949. “Yessir,” Allen declared, “the average comedian is a mouth that speaks the thoughts of others’ brains. Machine age humor, like the automobile, is turned out on the assembly line.” As a wordsmith who preferred to live by his own wit, Allen was the free spirit in a machine that increasingly generated shoddily assembled audience participation programs, the temporary demand for which ran him out of business that year—a dead giveaway that executives were not in it for laughs.

Fred Allen

What Allen in his dread of the mechanical and the mercenary could not foresee is that, sixty years on, the “[m]achine age” would give those determined to publish the thoughts of their own brains an instrument with which to bypass the assembly lines and make a beeline for the byline that would otherwise be hard to come by; a forum in which freely to exchange ideas instead of turning out commercial copy in exchange for a few pay-per-click pennies; and a means of reaching out to the “real” among the virtual whose minds are not of the assembly line persuasion.

One way of acknowledging such commercial-free souls and inspiriting kindred is to bestow the Dardos. It might sound like some post-apocalyptic cult; but in truth it is a token

given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.

I am certainly grateful to the two journalists who saw it fit to stamp me thus. After all, Ivan (Thrilling Days of Yesteryear) and Jeff (The Easy Ace) are among the few who share my enthusiasm for broadcast history and historic broadcasts—the kind of kilorecycling that has been going on here for nearly nigh on four years. In felicitous low-fidelity, they are committed, as I am, to re-popularizing the post-popular, to tracing the mainstream that has dried up or run its course into a sea of indifference. Their work “adds value to the Web” all right; but that is rather too prosaic a way of putting it—and, as far as my web experience is concerned, an understatement besides.

Thrilling is what Inner Sanctum’s Lipton Tea lady might have termed “brisk” entertainment. It is entirely without additives or artificial sweeteners, which makes taking refreshment there a guiltless pleasure. Ace, meanwhile, tells it “The Way It Was”; in his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,” he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine, which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past. To relate to them both has been at once “Easy” and “Thrilling.”

The same can be said for the task at hand. In keeping with the “rules,” I

1) accept the Dardos by displaying it here, along with the names of those who bestowed it and a link to their respective journals; and

2) pass it on to another five blogs I deem worthy of this acknowledgement, contacting each of them to let them know they have been selected.

The five journals I single out here have kept this niche in cyberspace from feeling like a padded cell or isolation ward to me. They are all eligible for the “Helen Trent” award, far from mute testament that because a blogger is “thirty-five or more,” an active life online “need not be over,” that blogging “can begin at 35.” The Dardos I bestow upon them because I appreciate their wit, their ebullience and their tenacity; because they do as they please and, by doing so, make me say, “please, keep doing it.”

As Emerson put it, the ‘perception of the comic is a tie of sympathy with other men, a pledge of sanity, and a protection from those perverse tendencies and gloomy insanities in which fine intellects sometimes lose themselves.”

A fine intellect not in danger of gloomy insanities is Doug, who keeps Waking Ambrose. Ambrose Bierce, that is, whose Devil’s Dictionary he translates and updates for the 21st century. What’s more, Doug invites all of us to do the same, and, having acknowledged our contributions, regales us with stories and verse, then finds time to make the rounds and drop us a taut line. In all this interactivity, he is a paragon among bloggers.

There are journalist on the web with whom I keep having imaginary conversations. With Elizabeth of Relative Esoterica, whom I picture as a Myrna Loy unencumbered by a William Powell, I discourse on film noir and biography as we listen to the jazz about which she is not only knowledgeable but passionate. We agree that, while it is unwise to be fanatic about anything, it would be wretched not to feel enthusiastic about something or other.

With Clifton of Canary Feathers I converse about the radio programs that enriched his childhood—be it One Man’s Family or Kaltenmeyer’s Kindergarten—and years in broadcasting as he plays an old but beautifully restored church organ surrounded by cats who flit in and out of a scene brightly lit by . . . a leg lamp. In my daydreams, I can readily dismiss the fact that felines make me sneeze.

With fellow expatriate Fred, he of The Synchronicity of Indeterminacy, I go on about Quiet, Please and the Columbia Workshop as he persuades me to open my mind and ear to contemporary sound artists and aural storytellers. His own stories are a popular and critical success. He might be fascinated by automatons—but is living proof of that the imaginative thinker need not fear extinction. His journal(s) would have put his aforementioned namesake at ease.

With John, the “urbane pagan” of Enchanté, I have had many a conversation; I see him whenever I am back in New York City. A few years ago, he expressed to me his intention of starting a web journal. He finally got underway, and what a way he’s got, casting imaginary musicals—On the Fritz! (“A sparkling new musical about Prussia’s gayest prince [and greatest king]”—or musing about the state of his follicles.

With all of them I feel a certain “tie of sympathy.” That those ties are machine-knit does not make them synthetic. Otherwise, I would hardly be one-hundred percent woolgathering about them . . .

"Samson, made captive, blind": Milton on the Wireless

BBC Radio 3 is in the middle of a Milton season, designed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the poet’s birth. This week, Milton’s works are the subject of The Essay; his views, their significance and influence, are discussed on this week’s Sunday Feature, while excerpts from his poetry are recited on Words and Music. On 14 December, a new production of Milton’s Samson Agonistes will be presented by Drama on 3.

The wireless gave birth to the career of many a Milton, from announcers Milton Cross and John Milton Kennedy to comic Milton Berle. Among its writers numbers Milton Geiger, a playwright whom Best Broadcasts anthologist Max Wylie singled out for his ability to bring “reality and movement to a property that is in every sense an allegory.” More than any of those Miltons on the air, John, the poet and essayist, is truly in his element in the so-called blind medium of radio. His struggle to combat metaphorical blindness while being afflicted with physical sightlessness—a challenge that became the subject of a radio play (previously discussed here) was frequently the theme of his poetry, from “To Mr. Cyriack Skinner Upon His Blindness” to Paradise Lost and, finally, Samson Agonistes:

“O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!” the captured Samson, blinded and bereft of his powers, laments:

Blind among enemies! O worse than chains,
Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!
Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,
And all her various objects of delight
Annulled, which might in part my grief have eased.
Inferior to the vilest now become
Of man or worm, the vilest here excel me:
They creep, yet see; I, dark in light, exposed
To daily fraud, contempt, abuse and wrong,
Within doors, or without, still as a fool,
In power of others, never in my own—
Scarce half I seem to live, dead more than half.

As a political writer eager to get his word out, Milton might have embraced the swift spreading of ideas that wireless technology makes possible. He would have seen in broadcasting the dissemination of so much good mingled “almost inseparably” with so much evil, from which the good is “hardly to be discerned.” To him, though, discernment was not the result of a shutting out of anything potentially harmful or ostensibly bad, but of a taking in of it all and an informed judging of its qualities. He would have welcomed the chance to have his words reach the ears of the multitude in a single broadcast, and of hearing the voices of others in an open forum.

Yet was there ever such a forum on the air? As he did in his Areopagitica, Milton would have objected to the licensing and censorship that threaten and curtail the freedom of speech. Commercial broadcasting, he might have argued, is not unlike Samson, betrayed, imprisoned and abused: “in power of others, never in [its] own,” a “moving grave” awaiting death by television. Even when it was still capable of bringing down the house, radio, like Samson, went down in the process before ever entirely convincing anyone of the power and virtue of sightless vision.

So, if Samson is Radio, who is his Delilah? Would it be television, the sponsors, radio executives, or, perhaps, the Philistine public at large?

"Everybody talks too much": Dylan Thomas and the Long-Lost "Art of Conversation"

“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 . . .

Mark Twain, Six Feet Under

“I have been trying all I could to get down to the sentimental part of it,” Mark Twain remarked on the “subject of graveyards.” Yet, he concluded, there was “no genuinely sentimental part” to the spectacle we make of the act of decomposing. “It is all grotesque, ghastly, horrible.”

Perhaps it takes a higher degree of sentimentality to find the romance in the morbid; but I am capable of just that. Whenever I travel, I enjoy visiting places of interment, particularly those large necropolises with their temples and statues erected in memory of mortals who, while above ground, played a vital role in the workings of our large metropolises.

Bankers and bigwigs seem to insist on occupying the largest dwellings in the cities of the dead. There must be some consolation in knowing that, even when six feet below, one can still get folks to look up in admiration. Writers, by comparison, often have modest graves. They, after all, leave their impressions by filling volumes that, however small by comparison to a mausoleum, are apt and ample monuments to their craft. Tombs are largely reserved for those who managed no tomes.

Mark Twain’s own grave is an encasement in point. Last summer, returning to New York City from a trip to Niagara Falls, we had a stopover in the town of Elmira. Since I was in charge of both the map and the guide book, I made sure it was on our way. After all, the humorist from Missouri is buried there. The first thing we did, after securing a room for the night, was to go in search of his final resting place, which we found, eventually, along with that of filmmaker Hal Roach (shown here). However impaired our sense of dimensions after beholding the Falls, the stone (pictured) is less than majestic.

Close to it, though, is a larger monument, about twice as high as the number of feet I presume him to be under, which is precisely the length denoted by the cry of “mark twain” from which Samuel Clemens took his name. The cleverness of the tribute notwithstanding, I wonder whether the writer so honored would have welcomed such a column. Resting assured that monuments are being perpetually erected in the minds of those who read, relish, and recite his words, Mark Twain may well have been better pleased with a more modest disposal, given his attitude toward burials as expressed in Life on the Mississippi:

Graveyards may have been justifiable in the bygone ages, when nobody knew that for every dead body put into the ground, to glut the earth and the plant-roots, and the air with disease-germs, five or fifty, or maybe a hundred persons must die before their proper time; but they are hardly justifiable now, when even the children know that a dead saint enters upon a century-long career of assassination the moment the earth closes over his corpse.  It is a grim sort of a thought.  The relics of St. Anne, up in Canada, have now, after nineteen hundred years, gone to curing the sick by the dozen.  But it is merest matter-of-course that these same relics, within a generation after St. Anne’s death and burial, made several thousand people sick.  Therefore these miracle-performances are simply compensation, nothing more.

Besides, he pointed out (quoting a member of Chicago Medical Society, who was an advocate of cremation), “[f]unerals cost annually more money than the value of the combined gold and silver yield of the United States in the year 1880! These figures do not include the sums invested in burial-grounds and expended in tombs and monuments, nor the loss from depreciation of property in the vicinity of cemeteries.”

Mark Twain was born on this day, 30 November, in 1835; he died nearly a century ago and, whatever his views on the matter of tombstones, has well earned his keep at Woodlawn. Here he immaterializes for us in “The Adventures of Mark Twain” (Cavalcade of America, 1 May 1944), the voice being that of Fredric March. In light of Mark Twain’s remarks, I believe he would have approved of the memorial services a cost-effective medium like radio can provide. Radio gets rid of the body but keeps the spirit alive.

Radio Was . . . “Stud’s Place”

“The importance of the ‘word’ was lost when television took over the living rooms of America. Sure, there were plenty of trivial programs on radio at the time, but there were also brilliance and creativity that have never been equaled by television.” This is how Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian Studs Terkel (1912-2008) summed up the decline in our regard for and funding of the medium in which he, as an interviewer, excelled. “The arrival of television was a horrendous thing for the medium of radio,” Terkel told Michael C. Keith, editor of Talking Radio (2000). “It was devastating for the radio artists as well as the public. Television was a very poor replacement.”

In the late 1940s, when radio had not yet been superseded by television in all but talk and music, Terkel was frequently heard on Destination Freedom, a history program dramatizing the stories of America’s negro people, including notable Americans like Joe Louis, Richard Wright, and Jackie Robinson.

Tonight, BBC Radio 4’s Archive Hour (in a broadcast available online until 5 December 2008) brings back the life of the legendary voice of the Bronx-born and Chicago-bred journalist. “Studs Terkel: Back in the Wax Museum” delves into the late historian’s personal collection of some seven thousand hours of recordings that he donated to the sound archive of the Chicago Historical Society; these interviews represent nearly half a century of broadcasting. As documentarian Alan Dein puts it, Terkel is the “undisputed hero and the modern pioneer of what we now know as oral history, the art of exploring living memory.”

To Terkel, America was deficient in memory, as well as the respect for its inconstancy; so, whether he interviewed and recorded noted figures of his day or the “so-called ordinary people”—workers, civilians, survivors of war—who could not count on a public platform elsewhere, Terkel did much to prevent listeners from forgetting. Among the voices heard on the program, aside form Stud’s own, are those of beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith, film star Joan Crawford, fan dancer Sally Rand, Algonquin Round Table wit Dorothy Parker, Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, feminist Simone de Beauvoir, philosopher Bertrand Russell (interviewed at his home in Wales), Irish street singer Margaret Barry, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., African-American journalist Vernon Jarrett, and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson venting her frustrations without song. “I haven’t the vaguest idea” how to operate a tape recorder, Terkel once confessed. “Yet, it is my right arm,” he marveled.

According to Terkel, who was discharged from military due to a perforated eardrum, the advent of television was “forcing radio to reinvent itself into something not quite as good”; but, the loss of radio dramatics notwithstanding, the audio documentary was surely the very best way in which to reinvigorate the airwaves. “Stud’s Place” was Terkel’s foray into television back in 1949 (cut short due to anti-Communist hysteria); but it was radio that remained his true domain.