Sunday, April 12, 2009

Radio Memories: Easter Passion

"The Theater Of The Mind": for many years this was one of the favored ways of describing the early 20th Century's beloved, and dearly departed, art form of radio drama. Today's radio offers news, music, this and that, but precious little of the kind of programming that filled its airwaves for that brief window of time when radio, not television, was king.

Every Sunday, through these Radio Memories posts, we pause to pay tribute to "The Theater Of The Mind", as we take a break from blogging about more serious subjects to listen a while for echoes of a different time, through a lost art.

This week we feature an episode from the waning years of radio drama, from the series that believe it or not was actually responsible for coining the very term, "theater of the mind", in its opening credits (the expression had to come from somewhere, after all..!): the one-of-a-kind CBS Radio Workshop.

In his 1979 autobiography As It Happened: A Memoir, CBS President (and longtime owner) William S. Paley revealed that this was one radio series that his company would always handle with special treatment. It was broadcast as what was known as a "sustaining" program, meaning that it would never be commercially sponsored; the network would insist on paying the bill, themselves. Not for lack of interest on the part of potential sponsors; many came calling but all were turned away. Paley felt that the moment the show possessed an actual sponsor it might dilute the purpose of the series: to creatively experiment with the art form of radio drama, in music, sound effects, story content, acting styles... whether it was adaptations of Alduous Huxley, the Gettysburg Address or the King James Bible, each week's effort would be a unique theatrical result, and as close to "art for art's sake" as the business of show business might ever aspire to.

The pioneering anthology series ran in several packages over the years, starting off in 1936 as the Columbia Workshop, lasting in some comercial-free form or another until 1947. So many of the network staff missed the show's creative challenges so dearly, that Paley brought the program back for one final year's run in 1956-57, as the CBS Radio Workshop.

For their Sunday, April 21st 1957 Easter broadcast, the Workshop offered "The Son Of Man", a play written (or should I say, edited) by Archibald MacLeish, consisting of Gospel passages read by Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall, Victor Jory and Robert Young, with narration by Raymond Burr, all interwoven around the music of J.S. Bach (narrator Burr explains that "the music has an actor's part", a delightful description of the stirring use of music in this play).

It is a reminder of a different time, of the power of words, and of the faith that can come from them...

Previous Radio Memories posts:

Great Gildersleeve: Easter Rabbits

Dimension X: Time And Time Again

An American In England: Women Of Britain

Cavalcade Of America: Bob Hope Reports

The March Of Time: Feb 10 1938 broadcast

Hear It Now: Coming Home From The Korean War

Escape: Vanishing Lady

Rogers Of The Gazette: Rewinding The Town Clock


Dag said...

I think this is the best part of our blog, Charles.

Charles Henry said...

Thanks, Dag, I appreciate the compliment.

I have a feeling that if you were home on Sunday afternoons during 1956 and '57, you would definitely be tuning in to the CBS Radio Workshop. This was definitely a show that a travel-loving student of history and philosophy like you would find greatly rewarding.

From a show on buying a dog in New York City, to an audio tour of the seven hills of Rome, to interviewing Shakespeare in order to make sure he indeed was the author of the plays attributed to him, every show introduces you to a new corner of the world, past present, even future (in a two-part adaptation of Brave New World).

Come to think of it, there's even an episode devoted entirely to Ecclisiastes.

(You won't see **that** on CBS too often, these days..!)

Charles Henry said...

whoops, I mean Ecclesiastes, with an "e" not an "i".

truepeers said...

It's interesting, as we listen to this and remember a time - still alive in the 1970s and maybe early 80s - when the MSM could tell the Christian story as if it were the mainstream story. Today's victimary forces will listen to this kind of program and, in the name of multiculturalism, feign shock or amusement at how hegemonic Christianity then was, as if Christianity were claiming the American state and/or secular culture for itself. But I think that would be to miss an important point the Pope has made and that I think was somehow intuitive to the culture until the 1980s, and implicit in this program:

Describing Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) as "a most profound political thinker," Professor Rourke writes:

. . . a central feature of the pope's fundamental politics is to show how the state's openness to God, far from leading to theocracy, is actually the only thing that enables the state to distinguish itself properly from the Church, and thus to resist the twin temptations of utopianism and totalitarianism.

Gil Bailie

Dag said...

Rourke makes an excellent point. The etymologogy of religion is, very much close to the etymology of fascism, "binding." The difference between a binding religion and a binding poligion, I think, is that religion leaves open the possibility of another kind of life in competition with the state so that neither is totalitarian in effect, whereas the poligion combines all in itself, leaving no room for anything but enforced conformity in all aspects of life. Often, it seems, those without religion still have a religious impulse, and they turn to poligions to satisfy their need.

If I can dismiss the preacher's view of the morality of President Polk, and dismiss Polk's version of the demerits of Catholicism, then I have some chance of freedom. A winning situation.

But if the State and God are the same, then I am stuck with no choice but being a slave or an outlaw. If religion promises Heaven in the next life, then I won't be so keen to try to make it happen in the here and now, particularly if that requires killing off the kulaks to make it happen. One might work within the government for one end, and within the religion for another, avoiding, as Rourke points out, both totalitarianism and utopianism.

truepeers said...

That's right, and the interesting thing about our times is that the kind of maximally differentiated culture we once had can come alive again via the blogs! The state can rediscover its respect for the God that separates church and state because ultimately the state is us, those bound by a covenant that we make ours or live as slaves.