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Immaterial Culture

Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929–1954


Harry Heuser

Immaterial Culture engages with texts that are now largely unread and dismissed as trivial or dubious: the vast body of plays – thrillers, narrative poetry, comedy sketches, documentaries and adaptations of literature and drama – that aired on American network radio during the medium’s so-called golden age.
For a quarter century, from the stock market crash of 1929 to the introduction of the TV dinner in 1954, radio plays enjoyed an exposure unrivalled by stage, film, television and print media. As well as entertaining audiences numbering in the tens of millions for a single broadcast, these scripted performances – many of which were penned by noted novelists, poets and dramatists – played important and often conflicting roles in advertising, government propaganda and education.
Reading these fugitive and often self-conscious texts in the context in which they were created and presented, the author considers what their neglect might tell us about ourselves, our visual bias and our attitudes toward commercial art and propaganda. The study’s ample scope, its interdisciplinary approach and its insistence on the primacy of the texts under discussion serve to regenerate the discourse about cultural products that challenge the way we classify art and marginalise the unclassifiable.


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Chapter 4 “Rise up and speak, you voices!”: Medium and Zeitgeist


Leave me your pulses of rage – bequeath them to me – fill me with cur- rents convulsive, Let them scorch and blister out of my chants when you are gone, Let them identify you to the future in these songs. — Walt whitman, “Spirit Whose Work Is Done” (1881) “Writing a radio play is a poetic activity,” Rudolf Arnheim insisted; and, to realize the potentialities of the aural medium, “poets should emphati- cally be brought into the wireless studio.”1 In Britain, this sentiment was shared by poet laureate John Masefield, who, in a 1930 interview, expressed the belief that collaborations between poets and broadcasters could yield “one of the most fruitful schools of poetry that we have had for centuries.” Masefield embraced wireless technology as a “miracle” that could restore poetry to its “ancient place” by recuperating the “beauties of the spoken voice as a means of mass communication.” Not “since the poets of the early Greek-city States sang the Homeric stories to the people gathered in the market place” had poets enjoyed such an “opportunity of making direct vocal contact with the whole population of the State.”2 And yet, this marveled-at capacity of radio to appeal to or speak for the masses did little to convince American poets to enter the competitive 1 Arnheim, Radio, trans. Margaret Ludwig and Herbert Read (London: Faber, 1936) 208. 2 Qtd. in Claire Price, “The Poet Laureate Talks of Poetry,” New York Times Magazine 16 Nov. 1930: 6. 94 Chapter 4 “market place...

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