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Immaterial Culture

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

Series:

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 5 “It’s going to hurt, but think of this”: Service and Self-Effacement

Extract

Chapter 5 “It’s going to hurt, but think of this”: Service and Self-Ef facement I had a sense of responsibility […]. There is a weird power in a spoken word. And why the devil not? I was asking myself persistently while I drove on with my writing […]. And a word carries far – very far – deals destruction through time as the bullets go f lying through space. — Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900) With America’s entry into the war, an era of world-removed broadcast entertainment came to a sudden close. Networks and sponsors were now called upon to cooperate with government agencies to produce plays that could bring home the objectives of the frontline and take on the concrete challenges of the home front. The time for ageless parables and artistic pretentions having passed, radio playwrights were prompted to realize the propagandistic potentialities of the live medium and its appeal to millions of individuals listening and reacting simultaneously. Sporadic verse plays of indirection were to make way for periodic directives in prose – terse, vernacular, and reportorial. Donald W. Riley, a contemporary observer of trends in 1940s network programming, remarked that radio drama “assumed a greater importance in wartime” because it was “well adapted” to the exploitation of the medium as an “instructional and inspirational weapon.” It “reacts more quickly” to “current events than does the stage or screen,” the mounting of productions for which usually required months rather than days.1 Yet even though the Of fice of Facts and Figures (OFF) 1 Riley,...

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