Radio Drama in Action: Twenty-Five Plays of a Changing World
by Erik Barnouw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I checked this book out of the library, hoping to get a bit of perspective on the history and development of radio drama. What I didn't fully recognize was that not only were all the plays in this book written and broadcast in the early-to-mid 1940s, but they were all specifically public service broadcasts. In other words, these aren't even the ordinary soap-opera, thriller, science-fiction, and other popular entertainment programs of the early 40s. Everything in this volume was written with the specific intent to either instruct or propagandize. It's like trying to understand the history of American film by watching Reefer Madness
Having said that, the book offers a really fascinating window into a certain slice of life and public discourse in the 1940s. Most obvious is the importance of the ongoing war. It leads to a very strange and slightly surreal moral calculus, in which anything that is to be portrayed as good must be shown to be helping the fight against Hitler, and anything that is bad is what detracts from that fight. Here's one example, from an Orson Welles-penned biography of Christopher Columbus, in a scene in which he is depicting the brewing mutiny among Columbus's sailors:
FOURTH VOICE. The Nazi war machine is invincible.
SECOND VOICE. Let's face it-he can't be beaten.
THIRD VOICE. We can't hold out against the Nazi's.
WELLES. Of course, Columbus' men weren't talking about the Nazis back then, but it was the same kind of talk.
It seems totally out of left field, until you realize that this play was translated into Spanish and Portuguese and broadcast to Latin America as part of an effort to promote pan-American unity during the war.
This "any enemy of Hitler is a friend of ours" rhetoric produces some serious historical ironies in "Concerning the Red Army", in which the achievements of the new, modern, and heroic Soviet Union are extolled in rapturous tones. And then there's a bizarre "folk opera" in which Abraham Lincoln is resurrected after his death and travels around America. While the primary focus of the piece seems to be just to celebrate Lincoln by turning him into a Christ figure, the writers still leave no doubt that Abraham Lincoln would have approved of America's involvement in World War II.
Another preoccupation that comes through is that of race and racism. A hefty number of the plays in this book are dedicated simply to the proposition that "blacks/Chinese/Jews/Japanese Americans are people too". This is usually done with all the subtlety of an ABC after-school special, though both Pearl S. Buck's story of Chinese villagers sacrificing to build an airfield for American bombers and Morton Wishengrad's "The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto" are quite moving in their own ways. A bit more subtle is Roi Ottley's "The Negro Domestic", which directly tackles the "mammy" stereotype and portrays as heroic a black woman's decision to leave the white family for whom she has worked as a servant for many years and make her own life. (Of course, she gets a job in a parachute factory - helping to beat Hitler!)
And of course, the worst thing about racism is that it helps our enemies in the war. Here is "Open Letter on Race Hatred" on the July, 1943 Detroit race riots:
SECOND NARRATOR. And in the great factories of Detroit, which proudly claims the title of "Arsenal of Democracy," few men worked that day. From bloody dawn to bloody dawn, in that single day these insurrectionists wasted one million man-hours.
How many of your sons will die for lack of the tanks and planes and guns which Detroit did not make that day?
NARRATOR. We lost Bataan gallantly. We surrendered Corregidor with honor. We were defeated at Detroit by ourselves in shame and humiliation.
Then there are some straightforward educational programs, which are mostly pretty dull, with the exception of "Bretton Woods", written by Peter Lyon for the CIO, which is a great piece of educational writing, lively and funny, although admittedly with a bit of an axe to grind.
For the most part, these are not plays that anyone today would read for simple amusement. But as historical and sociological documents, they're fascinating. View all my reviews >>