Sunday, January 17, 2010

Radio Memories: Hope For Haiti

I've often wondered what causes a nation more affliction: to possess too much history, or too little.

The attention to Haiti's tragic earthquake has put her recent and long-term history in the spotlight as well, revealing a nation reliving a cycle of enslavement, revolution and retribution. The history of injustice imposed from without (such as the indemnity French king Charles X demanded in 1825 as compensation for lost profits from a lost colony) competes in outrage with the miseries self-imposed from within. It's a textbook example of fallen mankind's inherent ability to hate "the other", how poisonous the natural urge for revenge can be, and how difficult a path it is to look for ways to forgive past transgressions.

If we possess too little knowledge of the past, the loss deprives us of the awareness of the rare good examples to follow, of the suffering of others before us who nevertheless put aside grievances in order to declare, "the past starts today". Yet knowing too much, being fully aware of humanity's endless capacity for cruelty, makes it only too easy to believe that the past is prologue, and that therefore vengeance is likely justified defense against inevitable aggressions to come. It's so hard to bury the hatchet, when everybody remembers precisely where it is buried... and why it was buried in the first place.

Haiti is haunted by its past, as so many of us are as individuals, chained to our own personal histories, to the sins we chose to commit as well as the sins visited upon us by others. In looking for inspiration to keep faith in the belief of a better future for Haiti I looked back this week to earlier examples offering reasons to find hope for Haiti, examples in the form of radio dramas.

The arrival of television in the 1950s came at the expense of an older art form, performed on radio: radio drama. Radio's theatrical tradition has been all but wiped clean from our cultural memories, rarely remembered today despite the fondness with which it was enjoyed back in its prime. Comedy, romance, westerns, and so much more was dramatized as plays for the ear, a "theater of the mind".

For the last year we've tried to present weekly features devoted to the memory of radio drama, doing our little bit to keep its legacy in mind; there is much to learn from the cultural mirror that these cultural memories have to offer us, modern-day explorers trying to imagine what we might become, through discovering all that we've been.

This week I have not one but two Radio Memories, each devoted to Haiti.

The first episode is from the evocative series Ports Of Call. The Ports Of Call show worked around an intriguing gimmick: each week the listening audience of armchair travelers would join the unnamed passengers of an unnamed ship, as they ventured ashore and visited far-away ports in Africa, Asia, Europe... and this week, Haiti.

The format of the show would normally feature the passengers visiting the local sights, markets, rivers, buildings, mountains; their comments and observations would serve as a cue for dramatized re-enactments of historical events associated with whatever highlights the local areas would have to offer. This week's visit to Haiti, however, seems different; it's almost as if the passengers never leave the boat, and the bulk of the show is devoted to recounting a singular historical anecdote, the life of Haiti's liberator, Toussaint L'Ouverture. I wonder: is this because, back then, there just wasn't anything to see or do in Haiti, due to its condition, or were the writers so fascinated with what they learned of Haiti's origins as a free nation that they uncharacteristically focused so heavily on the one incident?

The episode reproduced below originally aired in 1935, when the medium of radio drama was still in its infancy. Like television, radio's growth as a business as well as an art form brought with it a certain compartmentalization, with new shows judged and approved because they fit easily into pre-existing categories: "detective shows", "situation comedies", "horror anthologies", and so on.

In the beginning nobody had any pre-conceived notions of what the emerging art of radio drama should be, leaving open the possibility that it could be... anything. Therefore what the early broadcasts may lack in technical polish, they tend to make up for in the excitement of discovery, and their awareness that no matter what they had already created elsewhere, they were now starting fresh, exploring something new.

For a brief period in 1935 and 1936, one of the explored possibilities was the fascinating travelogue series itself devoted to exploration: Ports Of Call.

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