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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 6 “Until I know the thing I want to know”: Puzzles and Propaganda


I suppose he thought I didn’t understand, for just as he was drawing ahead again he pointed to the south’ard, and then shouted through his hands as a trumpet “Verstehen Sie? short-cut through sands; follow me!” the last two sentences in downright English. I can hear those words now, and I’ll swear they were in his native tongue. — Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands (1903) “On examination of the plot types that are popular for radio plays,” Waldo Abbot remarked in his Handbook of Broadcasting, “one finds that the ten- dency is toward the thriller play”;1 on examination of the networks’ pro- gramming schedules, one finds this tendency ref lected in a steady increase of mystery and suspense dramas. In January 1930, only three thriller series were regularly featured on network radio; one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, nineteen such programs were broadcast weekly. Four years later, the number had risen to thirty-two.2 Notwithstanding a few early and lasting successes – the nostalgic whodunits of Sherlock Holmes (1930–55), the true crime reenactments of Gang Busters (1935–57), and the neo-gothic romances of The Shadow (1930–54) – most of radio’s longest- running thriller programs originated in the early to mid-1940s, including the anthologies Inner Sanctum Mysteries (1941–52), The Whistler (1942– 55), and Suspense (1942–62). According to a Newsweek article published 1 Abbot, Handbook of Broadcasting, 2nd edn (New York: McGraw, 1941) 105. 2 Harrison B. Summers, A Thirty Year History of Programs (1958; New York:...

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